Writer in Residence · 10/09/2012

The Coyote In The Elevator

My mom wants me to get my teeth straightened. They’re not really that crooked, just a little jumbled on the bottom. I think they make me look kind of tough, in a good way, but my mom wants me to look just like her — Little Miss Perfect, gobs of gel to keep her hair in place, gobs of makeup to cover the real texture of her skin. She says I’ll be old enough to start wearing make up soon, but I tell her I like my face the way it is just fine.

Anyway, she took me out of school to consult with an orthodontist, some hotshot in downtown Seattle. The guy put mushy pink stuff in these trays and I had to bite down on them. It oozed onto the back of my throat and I thought I was going to be sick. He was doing this to make molds of my teeth so he could see how to “fix” them. If you look at all the molds that he has on a shelf, the Befores and Afters, all the Afters look the same. The Befores are more interesting. I don’t want to look like everyone else, all neat and boring. I think my mom imagines that if she gets my teeth in order, she’ll be able to control whatever comes out of my mouth, too, but she better not hold her breath.

After the appointment, my mom said she’d take me out to lunch, but I wasn’t hungry; I was still feeling sick from the goo and from the guy’s rubber glove fingers in my mouth. So she said we could go shopping instead (her favorite pastime, not mine.) We went to First Street where at least there are some interesting stores, not just the ones you find at the mall, but what happened in the street was much more interesting.

I saw the birds first. They were about a block away, a whole bunch of crows, swooping up, then dive bombing, cawing like they’d just discovered crow gold, whatever that might be. “What are those birds doing?” I asked my mom.

“I don’t know, Cecelie,” she said as she eyed a red dress in a window.

The birds got closer, and I noticed they were going after an animal, a scrawny, dirty animal running very fast in our direction.

“Look, Mom!” I yelled. “Those birds are chasing that poor dog!” I waved my arms at the birds, hoping to shoo them away.

“Cecelie…” She sounded annoyed, but then she looked up and said “Oh my god!” and pulled me into the store.

“What’s going on?” I asked her. She was breathing very hard.

“That’s no dog,” she said. “That’s a coyote!”

My mom is no big fan of wildlife. I once convinced her to rent a two-person kayak so we could paddle around the Sound, and an orca swam up right near us. I thought it was the most awesome thing in the world, but my mom freaked out. I had to paddle us back to shore because my mom was hyperventilating so bad.

When she said it was a coyote, I said “Cool!” and ran out the door. She screamed “Cecilie!” after me, but I kept running. I didn’t know coyotes lived in Seattle; I had to see it for myself.

The birds chased the coyote down the street.

“Stop it!” I yelled to the crows. “Stop it, you jerks!” But they kept cawing and diving, and the coyote kept running, lost and frantic, and I kept following them all. People were screaming on the sidewalk, not knowing what to do. I don’t know where my mom was at that point, if she was chasing after me or breathing into a paper bag back in the store. I just knew I had to keep my eye on that coyote.

Then the coyote ran in front of the Federal Building, and when the sliding doors opened up, he dashed right inside the lobby. The crows seemed to know they weren’t supposed to go indoors. They cawed loudly and flapped their wings like old ladies shaking their fists at some hooligan before they finally flew away. By the time I caught up, the security guy wouldn’t let me in, but I could see the coyote slip inside an elevator, and I saw the doors slide shut.

“Wait!” I yelled to the guard. “He’s going to go crazy in there! You have to let him out!”

“Let’s hope nobody is in that elevator,” he said.

If I were in the elevator with the coyote, he wouldn’t hurt me at all. It was like with the orca. I told myself not to be scared, I told myself to see if I could understand the orca’s language, and I think the whale understood what I was thinking and that’s why she swam close. I think if I was in the elevator with the coyote, I’d try to think like a coyote and he would be able to feel me thinking and he would know everything was okay.

But I guess everything wasn’t okay, because the coyote started howling. I’ve heard people pretend to be coyotes howling at the moon, and I never knew if they were doing a good impression or not. I guess they were, because that’s just what this coyote sounded like — “oooOOOOO, ooooOOOOOOO!” This was terror-howling, though, not moon-howling — and I could tell that there wasn’t a person in there because there wasn’t a person’s voice howling along with him.

Then the animal control people drove up with their white truck and their cages and nets and gloves, and in all the hustle and bustle, I managed to slip inside the building with them.

“You’re not going to kill him, are you?” I asked, but no one answered me.

“You better not kill him!” I yelled as they set up their gear, and then my mom came in the door, some store lady holding her up by the arm.

“Cecelie, thank God!” she sobbed. “I was so worried!”

“I’m fine,” I said. “It’s the coyote you should be worried about!”

“Good luck,” the store lady whispered to my mother, then raced back outside, as if the coyote was going to come get her at any moment.

The guard from outside sidled up to us. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave,” he said, his hand on his holster. “It’s not safe for you in here.”

“You heard the man, Cecelie,” my mother said.

“I want to make sure they don’t kill him!” I yelled.

“They’re gonna do whatever they’re gonna do,” he told me, and started to usher us to the door. The coyote howled louder. I could hear some clanging around, like the animal control people were breaking into the elevator from the top.

“Don’t hurt him!” I yelled as loud as I could.

“Cecelie, we have to leave,” my mom’s voice was shaky, but all business. I knew I had to go, but I wasn’t going to leave without at least a little bit of a fight, so I growled at the guard as the sliding doors whooshed open. I caught a glimpse of my crooked teeth in the glass, looking extra fierce.

I read in the paper that the animal control people were able to lower a cage over the coyote and get him out. He had left tons of droppings all over the elevator floor. I guess that officially makes the elevator the coyote’s territory now, but I doubt he’ll ever come back to claim it. The animal control people brought him to a wild area east of the city and set him free. I’d love to go look for him, but I doubt my mom will be up for that. I hope he’ll still be around when I can drive myself.

My mom doesn’t understand why I think coyotes are so cool, but at least she said I don’t have to get braces, not right away. She said I’ll change my mind. She said one day I’ll want my teeth straight, just like one day I’ll want to wear make up. I’ll let her believe that. But the truth is, whenever she talks about braces and lipstick, something howls in me, loud as a coyote in an elevator when the doors are starting to close, when there might still be a chance to get out.

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A statement about the story from Gayle Brandeis: I wrote “The Coyote in the Elevator” after reading a news story about a coyote who ran into an elevator in downtown Seattle several years ago. I immediately envisioned a girl on the cusp of adolescence being moved by this coyote at a time when her own innate and innocent wildness feels endangered by her mother’s, and society’s, expectations. Young people are often so much more attuned to that natural world than adults, and if this story ever reaches a young audience, I hope it will remind kids to hold on to that connection fiercely, to not let that wildness get drummed away (and who knows? Maybe it will remind adults that we still have coyotes stalking around inside of us.)

Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), as well as her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. In 2011, she released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an ebook. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler. She recently began a two year appointment as the new Inlandia Literary Laureate. You can find out more at www.gaylebrandeis.com.

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posted by Stefanie Freele