“…what we have here, Bill, if you—if you let me speak, Bill, what we have here is a classic case of bait and switch. There’s no way that the White House is truly backing this, even as a declared fully partisan plan. There’s too much at stake here for both sides, too much to be lost on both sides, and what I was—”

“Leonard, I’ve known you for a long time—”

“—what I was trying to say—”

“—I’ve known you for a long time, Leonard, and I’ve always respected you until this very moment. How could you honestly believe this whole bait and switch theory when it’s blatantly obvious that the whole thing’s been concocted by the far left to distract the general public from the important issues—”

The radio clicked to silence, the cab of the semi becoming heavy with the reverberating sound of the engine. The passenger window was down about halfway, and the air was sweeping the stale out. That was how Carl liked it sometimes. Quiet, natural. The stale was new. It had smelled sweet before, but now there was the pungent odor of nothing. It had been giving him headaches, or at least, that’s what he kept telling himself. Carl hadn’t been sleeping exceptionally well, either, but it had been a boon for his travel time. Being paid by the mile, he made the most of his insomnia by cutting down his delivery times, and he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

On the opposite side of the coin, the silence was sometimes deafening. It fluctuated between soothing and debilitating, and at the worst times it was both, and there was nothing to be done except to listen to one of Linette’s old cassette recordings. He reached to the center console, selecting blindly from the collection. Once he had a grasp of one, he read the title “Madama Butterfly” handwritten neatly on the label. He smiled, knowing this was Linette’s favorite, then turned it up until it was too loud and too beautiful for him to go insane.

With the extra time on his hands, Carl had chosen to take a back road in lieu of the interstate, which, around the Denver area, was picturesque in the moonlight. The caps of the mountains glowed a chrome white, saluting the Midwest sky. Linette would’ve taken a photograph, he was sure. Carl glanced over at the collage of Polaroids stapled to the interior of the cab as though they were the kaleidoscope of life itself. There was the one with him sleeping in the back, wrapped in that old pueblo blanket she’d picked up at a gas station in New Mexico. Linette loved that thing, and they would bundle up under it together on cold nights.

Carl tried to place a name to the soprano singing on the cassette, or at least to name the song. His wife had told him at least a few times, yet he could never seem to remember until she’d told him again. Without her there to tell him, however, what was he to do? He recalled her saying it was an aria. Carl stared blankly ahead, his brain taking charge of the wheel while his thoughts steered him down other roads. Linette was beautiful. Her smile was the sunrise over the plains and the sunset of the Rockies. Her laugh was the sound of the ocean landing on a Pacific shore. Her eyes were the heavens where God himself dreamed of retirement. Linette had always been that way, when they were young and as they aged. Now, the sun confined itself to the other side of the world. The ocean stilled its waves. God took out a timeshare in Florida.

…he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

Carl shook his head, furious for allowing his thoughts to take control again. He didn’t have time to get lost or to stray from the charted course where it was safe. He clicked the selector knob back to the radio, cutting out the opera, but only replacing it with static. Carl cursed aloud as he turned the dial further to explore the empty frequencies.

A loud thump at the nose of his truck captured his attention, and a shot of adrenaline opened his eyes wide. His brakes squealed and the pressure released with a hiss. Carl began to imagine all the possible animals he may have hit. A deer or an elk maybe. It wasn’t unheard of out here in the middle of nowhere, and it was the time of year for such things. Parked on the shoulder, he reached into the back of the cab for his flashlight then popped his door open. Blood on the front fender indicated he’d indeed clipped something, yet without fur left behind, he couldn’t say for sure what. His footsteps were thick and crisp beneath his boots as he followed the beam of light across the ground. It had been less than a hundred feet, he estimated. Out of habit, Carl checked his tires and cables as he approached the rear of his 18-wheeler.

“This is a damn good flashlight,” Carl thought as the spotlight cut holes out of the darkness. There was the gravel lining the edge of the road. Rocks and weeds. The empty asphalt. Nothing that seemed to indicate he’d hit anything. “Maybe it was Sasquatch,” he chuckled to himself.

With a shrug, he turned to go back to his truck, but as the light swung ‘round, a glimmer shone from the opposite shoulder of the road. It was blood, not much, but some. The eyes of a coyote gleamed at him but with little concern for his presence as they turned to the dark, shimmering mass beside it. Carl took one cautious step closer, then another. The body of a second coyote lay at the paws of the first, breathing heavily and fast.

“Shit.” Carl shook his head, dismayed. “Shit, shit.” He wasn’t much into nature, but Linette had always been the kind-hearted one, and in her absence, he felt compelled to compensate.

He went back to his cab, took the .38 Special from the holster beneath his seat, ensured there were rounds in the cylinder, and returned to where the dying animal lay. The first coyote was no longer standing over the second, but lying in front of it, nose against nose. Carl’s throat burned and ached in his realization of what he was witnessing. Yet, with a cough, he resolved it, and steadied his gun.

“This is for the best, darlin’.” The female looked at him as her mate bled. “I’m sorry. He’s in pain.” She rested her head on the fur of his nape, making eye contact with Carl. The brow lifted and a sad whine sang out. “What do you want me to do?” Carl asked. The coyote began to lick the wounds of the other. “There’s no fixing him. There’s no helping. The closest town is about sixty miles and they don’t have a vet. Even if they did…” Resting her head again, she kept looking at him. “Just move, damn it.” He aimed again, yet she did not budge. Exasperated, Carl sighed and lowered his gun. “Ballsy little mutt, ain’tcha? Okay, then. Have it your way.”

As he turned to leave them, the coyote lifted her head and whined once more. Carl looked back, curious. It seemed to him that she wanted him to stay. He asked her this, then chuckled at himself for asking a stupid animal a question like that. But she seemed to answer. It was those goddamn eyes. They spoke a language, something that Carl couldn’t translate yet understood fluently.

“You hungry?” She didn’t move. “You’re probably hungry.” Carl went back again scrounged for the paper bag with the leftover fast food that Linette would have never let him eat. A moment later, he unwrapped a cheeseburger and tossed it toward the pair. She merely glanced at it, the bun askew and mustard smeared. “What’s the matter? You don’t eat meat?” he asked. “How about some water then?” Carl had grabbed a cooking pot and emptied a water bottle into it. Placing the pot on the ground, he slid it toward them. The coyote bared her teeth, wary of his proximity. “Okay, okay.” Carl backed off quickly, then stood scratching his head. The flashlight illuminated the blood to a glowing red and revealed a leg turned completely around.

Carl had heard that some coyotes mated for life but had never considered it more than a decision based around anything but procreation, if not a rumor. This was something else, however, something familiar to him, and he heaved a sigh. A large rock lay several feet off on the roadside and he took a seat, still watching them.

“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked her. She watched him calmly, laying her head back down on her mate. “If it makes you feel any better, he’s the lucky one. Dying is the easy part, you know. It doesn’t take any effort. No work, no fail and try again. Living, now, that’s the hard part.” He sucked at his teeth for a moment. “Like right now. He’s having a hard time trying to stay alive for you. He’s in pain. I’m sure he wants to stay alive, but… It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want. I guess that applies to other species… You should let me end it for him.” Carl reached for his gun, but the coyote growled again, and he held his hands where she could see. “Aright, alright. No guns. No easy, painless death for him.” He swallowed. “So, what now?”

The three sat still for a long time, and Carl listened to the breeze move across the spinning earth. Linette would do that on many mornings, except she would be in one of her various yoga positions. How she stayed in those knots for so long, he never could figure. Carl hadn’t ever been very flexible, even when she’d gotten him to try it out. Now that he thought about it, how the hell did she convince him to do yoga not once, not twice, but four times? He shook his head and laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he responded to the coyote lifting her head. “I just had a funny thought.” She laid back. “I was thinking about my wife, Linette, and her way of getting me to do things I’d never want to do and even make me think that’s what I wanted. You females are wily, and I suppose a female coyote’s the wiliest of them all. She got me eating okra. I hated okra my whole life, at least I thought I did. I hadn’t actually ever tried it. I didn’t tell her that, though. Just made it seem like I didn’t like the texture. One day she fried it up, and she made this special dipping sauce. I swear, I’ve still never eaten anything more delicious than Linette’s fried okra.” Carl was smiling at the coyote, then remembered, and he stopped. “Wily women. Maybe in a way, I always wanted to do those things. She just pulled it all out of me. And it made us both happy. I’m sure he ain’t any happier about him dying than you are,” he said, nodding towards them. She nuzzled the other coyote, licked him a few more times, then lied still watching Carl.

It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want.

“Better eat that cheeseburger before the ants get it. I heard they got big ones around here.” She glanced again at the food but remained where she was. She wasn’t eating, and he understood why. It was the same reason he hadn’t eaten. He lied to Linette about it, of course. He didn’t want her worrying. For some reason, thinking about the lie he told made him sick now.

Carl tried to leave again, but the coyote whined and yipped. “You want some company, huh? That’s what they say about misery, you know. Maybe that’s what I should call you. What do you think, Misery?”

The moon moved slowly across the sky as he neared sitting there for an hour. Glancing at his watch, it was a quarter to four. He considered his route, how much time he had to spare, and was still five hours ahead of schedule. The male coyote was still alive, and every so often would sigh, weak and strained. It’s not fair to him.

“It’s just not fair to him.” Carl looked her in the eye. It wasn’t fair to anyone. “I was right where you are, you know. My wife died, slowly. Instead of a few hours though, it took years. I watched her and held her as she fought through all the pain. She’d cry herself to sleep some nights. It was all I could do not to cry myself. Sometimes I wish I had, but she needed me to be strong for her. Someone had to. Her own body had turned on her, was killing her. And we stuck through it, with all the medicines and the treatments and operations and recoveries and thinking it was over and then finding out it wasn’t really.” Carl looked away, thoughts connecting in places they hadn’t before. “I’ve been wondering what the hell it all was for. Why all that if she was just going to die anyway? Now… you know, in some strange way, certain parts of it were the best time of our lives. In between the pain and the tears, we laughed so much, and we smiled. We had before, but, when you sandwich regular slices of good in between all the slices of bad, it was pretty damn amazing in contrast.” He looked back at her. “I guess I can understand now why you don’t want me to end it for him.” She sighed softly, and they sat silently again.

The dying coyote began to tremble, causing her ears to perk up as she cried.

“He’s getting cold. Lost a lot of blood. And it’s gotten colder.” Carl checked his watch again. Another hour had passed in what felt like only a few minutes. He wondered where the time had gone, and as if in response, the first glimmer of twilight peaked over the crests of the mountains washing everything with a dark purple haze. It took a few seconds to see clearly, but he could make out the panting of the coyote, still bleeding, still dying, and Carl became angry.

“Why’d you make me sit here like this, watching him die? I don’t deserve this. It’s not my fault that this is happening. You refuse to let me put him out of his misery.” She looked at him, motionless. “Why do you keep looking at me like that? He’s suffering, goddamn it! Can’t you see? You can hold on all you want to, but it isn’t going to change anything for him except leave him in pain longer. He’s dying. He’s as good as dead already. This isn’t about you, you know. I’ve got a life. I’ve got a job to do. I should be out there driving right now instead of sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere watching a stupid coyote bleed to death in the dirt. What the hell is the matter with you? You’re a sadistic little bitch, and I’m not putting up with it anymore!”

As he stood, she growled, and as he stepped, she darted in front of him, facing him with her fangs revealed. She wasn’t exceptionally large, but the warning in her eyes was a fire, and Carl halted.

“Get out of my way, you stupid mutt.” The coyote growled again. “Move! Go on!” Still, she remained in his path. Carl drew his gun. “I’ll shoot you. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will!”

The front sight post of his pistol was aligned to the Misery’s face. Her expression didn’t change, however. She was unafraid in a way that Carl recognized, not because he too was unafraid, but because he had been the polar opposite, and a part will always recognize its counterpart. But what was he so afraid of that this coyote wasn’t? What the hell did she know that was so unapparent to him? She knew what the gun meant, and yet she remained fixed in his path. Dying didn’t matter to her. He wasn’t bluffing. But in the same measure, staying alive didn’t matter either.

“Living isn’t the point, is it…” Carl neither asked nor stated. “But dying isn’t either.” The coyote relaxed and let out a quiet whimper. “I’m sorry for hitting him. I wasn’t paying attention. It’s my own fault that we’re here.

The sky was glowing as they returned together to the dying coyote. Carl sat beside them, his elbow on a knee. She took a spot nestled beside her mate. His breathing was shallow and labored now. Then, as the first ray of morning sun claimed the horizon, he died. She nudged him a few times, licked his face, then reared back and began to howl for several minutes. Somewhere in the distance, the echo of a response returned the call. Then another, and a third and fourth. Carl listened in silent awe as they sang to each other.

Misery rose, calmly, lightly, and turned away. Carl watched her until she disappeared in the distance. Five minutes later, he was digging a small grave away from the road, and soon after, he turned the key in his ignition. The radio blasted static at him, and he jumped, fumbling with the switch. Then, the soprano began singing her aria once more.

“Freni. Her name is Mirella Freni.” Carl laughed deeply, relieving the tension in his chest as he drove his rig back onto the highway, the sunlight warming his face. “One good day, we will see,” he said with a smile. “One good day, we will see.”



Studies In gray.