Guest Post: Patricia Ann Mcnair, Coyote On The Sidewalk

Patricia McNair headshotA writer friend was visiting from North Carolina. She is a country girl, lived—at the time—in an Airstream in the woods. She posts online pictures of her view sometimes (not too far from civilization to have access to WiFi) and it couldn’t be more different from mine. Trees, dense and green, mountains and untended ground cover. Me, I have trees out my window, too, the third floor of a six-flat in Andersonville on Chicago’s Northside. One tree grows so close to the building that squirrels jump from its branches to a ledge outside our window, dash across to where they can vault to the flat roof of the duplex next door. It drives our cat Pablo insane, this run of squirrels on the other side of the glass, close enough to make eye contact. The wild he can see and too, the wild it sparks in him. Philip (my husband) and I have come to call this Squirrel Highway, and we watch the show of it from our seats in the sunroom.

We—Philip, Pablo and I—live on a Chicago side street, a place of multi-family buildings and the occasional single-family house, small strips of grass that are not quite yards. Mostly sidewalk and street out front. Cars parked bumper to bumper, except when it snows, and then, between the cars covered in heaps of white powder, shoveled-clean spots with kitchen chairs and garbage bins and yellow police-type tape (we can buy it at the Ace Hardware down the block) stretched between broom handles sticking up in the snow. “Dibs”, we Chicagoans call this practice. As in: “I was up in the early morning dark and subzero Chicago winter weather to shovel this small patch of territory out, buddy. I call dibs.”

But this time when my friend visits, it is autumn, early autumn, and the trees are still leafy and the air is only slightly chilled and we have gone out for a walk to my favorite bookstore three blocks away. Women & Children First, an independent that despite the odds (Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon) has been in operation since 1979.

We are strolling, in no real hurry, book-talking and catching up. The city bustle is behind us back on Clark Street where it never seems to stop: buses, a taxi garage open 24 hours, bars and restaurants (fine and casual), firetrucks with lights and sirens going, a small (wonderful) bodega that sells both PBR and craft beer, fresh produce and canned vegetables, expensive organic and gluten free stuff, toilet paper and brightly colored hard candies in plastic packaging labeled with Spanish words or Asian lettering.

On my street, a small branch of Chicago’s famous grid system, there isn’t much going on. Middle of the day in the middle of the week. Ahead of us, a half-block away maybe, is an animal walking off-leash on the sidewalk.

Dog, I think, and maybe say. A little irritated because it is without a human, and I have once been bitten badly in this city by an off-leash, un-humanned, “friendly” dog.

“I don’t think that’s a dog,” my friend says. The animal, large, gray, slows ahead of us, sniffs things. It looks a little ragged. We cross to the other side of the road, watching.

“Coyote.” She says. Or I do.

This neighborhood used to be called Uptown, but in Chicago the borders of these places are movable, depending on realtor input. Uptown was a little scary when I was growing up, gangs, poverty and territorial divisions that made some people angry, made some dangerous. Now though, after years of encroaching gentrification little by little, we call it Andersonville, like they call the more desirable blocks with big houses and pretty graystone two-flats a quarter mile away on the north side of Foster Avenue, long ago home to working families of Swedish descent. It is a satisfyingly diverse neighborhood these days, a little grubby and a little grand, and I’ve lived here close to ten years.

I pass my neighbors as I walk along my street on the way to the El in the mornings. There is the paid dog walker with dreadlocks and a red hoodie and five pooches of various sizes pulling in different directions on their leashes. “Morning,” I say. “Yup,” he says. There are the two Asian women who tend their gardens in front of the apartment building three doors down from mine, squatting low and pulling weeds, pushing their wide-brimmed hats back from their foreheads to answer when I say hello. And there is the Cambodian Buddhist monk walking toward me, his saffron robes flapping at his legs. “Good morning,” I say, and make eye contact. The first time I did this, he looked slightly startled, although not displeased. “Mmm mmm,” he said in response, not sure of his English yet, or maybe not sure of me. He looked quickly away. That was a few months ago. Now, after almost daily passings, he holds my gaze, says clearly and with a smile, “Good morning.” Sometimes even before I do. There is the man who lives down the street in the two-flat where a Princess Leia (rest in peace) poster facing outward used to hang in the front, first floor window; he wears bottle-thick glasses and sits on his front stoop with a mug of coffee in his hands and nods when I say hi, smiles like we might really (after ten years) know one another. We don’t, despite how close we live to one another; I don’t know any of my neighbors, but I have watched them and imagined (and occasionally written) their stories for years.

My writer friend who lives in the country is a traveler. She has driven all over the United States, lived in different parts of it for weeks at a time, writing, writing, writing. She is one of those writers who does not believe the old adage “write what you know,” but instead is inclined to “write what you want to know, write what you can learn, write what you discover.” It is her curiosity that informs her writing, that makes it strongest. It is as if the writer in her is not fully satisfied with only what she sees out her window every morning.

I thought, when I started this piece, that it was going to be about writing, about craft. That coyote, I thought, unexpected and slightly exotic on the city sidewalk, was going to be a metaphor for the wild possibilities in even the most pedestrian (sidewalk, get it?) of stories. The extraordinary in the ordinary. And maybe it is that. But as happens with all of my writing, I don’t really know what it is about until I have written it. So let me see.

My writer friend and I stand still near the grass on our side of the street and the coyote swivels his big head toward us. He is a handsome boy (or girl) with a sharp snout that looks almost more feline than dog-like; he reminds me of our skinny Pablo: pointy face, ribs like framework showing under his coat, impressively long tail. We don’t move nor does he, a game of chicken on opposite sides of the road, only despite this wild sighting, my friend and I aren’t afraid. We know somehow, there is no danger here. Wild is not always dangerous. Then a battered-up car with a rubber-band engine passes between us and him, and when we look again, the animal is gone.

I have written this moment over and over again in my journal. Looked at it from all angles. A couple on a first date in a short story see the coyote at night, his wildness sends them into an alley where they press against one another against the wall of a building, breathing heavily and biting one another’s shoulders. A mother, already overly protective, in another short story sees the coyote and keeps her kindergartener out of school for the day. And then for the week. And then for the month. She lies to her husband when he goes to work in the morning. Sometimes, I write it simply like this: I saw a coyote today. On the sidewalk. I saw a coyote. A coyote.

I think I want it to be a sign, this sighting. Something that tells me something else I do not yet know. I haven’t yet figured out what that is, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting. From wondering.

And so maybe this is not a piece just about writing, but about the yearning toward wonder. (Or are those the same things?) About how living in this crowded place in the city, where noise and bustle is just a block away, makes me wonder daily—like a writer should. Who are you? I wonder when I stand on the Argyle El stop platform on an early Saturday morning and a woman in a midnight-colored, shimmering sari and a yellow down jacket stands shivering under the heat lamps; when, at noon, two tuxedoed men holding hands (obviously in love) climb aboard the 22 bus heading toward downtown. When I hear the sounds of what might be prayer from the Cambodian Buddhist Temple down the block. What are you saying? When a coyote walks casually down my city street. Where are you going? How did you get here? What is your story?

It is winter now, and the snow has begun to fall in the city. I hear outside my window the sound of shoveling, of making a “dibs” spot. I hear those sounds I will hear over and over again after the long Chicago’s winter, car wheels spinning and spinning and spinning, engines gunning. That stuck sound. People trying to get out. And when that happens, I understand that, too. Escape. Escape. Like my writer friend in the woods did so often. Like the coyote did when we had our heads turned. Escape. Escape this place where after months of cold and snow I sometimes fear my wonder will freeze over.

But just a couple of days ago it was autumn, at least that’s what it felt like, chilly but not cold, the earth warm enough to still be green. Where my friend lives in North Carolina, there is a drought, there are wildfires. The view from where she lives now, I imagine, is still pretty, but there is smoke at its edges and the ground cover is brown, dead. Her view, like mine, like all good views, must keep changing. A couple of days ago, it was windy here in the city, bits of paper were strewn in the grass and the gutters, advertisements for cleaning ladies, menus for delivery, homework on loose leaf blown from the clutches of children, other scraps blown from where they had been slipped under windshield wipers, or into mail slots or in the diamonds of metal fences. Now the snow has covered the scattered debris. It is white outside, the snow making everything new again, clean: streets and sidewalks and front stoops, and all the places in between.

If I stand up from behind my writing desk and look out the window, I might see the Asian women and the man in thick glasses shoveling their sidewalks. I might see the Cambodian Buddhist monk walking briskly down the street toward the bodega, his saffron robes flying out from under his parka, his rubber boots covering his bare legs almost to his knees. There will be small, wild footprints out there, too, in the strips of yards, in the middle of the street. The dog-walker has been through, probably. The squirrels.

Or maybe it was a coyote.

Maybe. I don’t know.

But I wonder.

Guest Post, Patricia Ann McNair: We Are All Just Stupid People

The Temple of Air“Your characters are so stupid,” the woman said. She sat at the other end of the table, directly across from me. It was a bright blue winter day, and the book club met high over the city, with views of the frozen lake and of snow piles going gray in the gutters. “I felt like slapping some of them!”

Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly what she said, this bit about my stupid characters, but it was something like that. (She did say the slapping part, though.) I’d been invited to speak with the book club about my collection of short stories, The Temple of Air, and I was, as I always am by these invitations, honored. I relish the opportunity to speak with readers; I’ve visited book clubs in living rooms and restaurants, shared brunch and dinner and coffee and drinks with avid and curious readers of all ages; I’ve read to them, talked with them, answered questions, filled them in on what parts of the book are “true” and what parts aren’t. (Yes, I knew identical twin brothers who dressed alike into their forties; no, they never murdered anyone that I know of. Yes, I hit a deer once with my car; yes, I had a neighbor whose husband shot half her face off; no, I haven’t had a mastectomy; yes, I have been unfaithful; no, I was never part of a cult.)

Perhaps you might discern from the parentheticals above that my book is not a particularly light read. There aren’t a lot of happy endings (although some I’d call bittersweet) and my characters get into trouble—often of their own making. And this book club lady in front of me (as well as a number of the other readers around the table) did not like that.

“Why didn’t he do something?”

“Why didn’t they stop him?”

“Why didn’t she get out of there?”

And then what, I wish I would have asked. Where’s the story in that?

Imagine The Grapes of Wrath if the Joads had turned back, got out of there, gave up their journey. The family, Steinbeck’s creation, shrinks by death and desertion, and yet they plod on. We, as readers, root for them, even though we are fairly certain that things will not turn out well. No happy endings here. And literature is all the better for it.

In a recent interview in The Writer’s Chronicle, Richard Bausch said, “…the thing that produces change is trouble. Even the happiest event is fraught with it, because we all know that the one promise life always keeps is suffering. Loss. Confusion. Grief. And writing about all those things matters because the subjects themselves matter.” He said as well, “…I’m always interested in the hurt people carry around.”

Me too.

I remember when I first read Raymond Carver. I came to him late-ish in life, like I did the active pursuit of writing. I’d dropped out of college and wasted time, bartending and managing a gas station, and finally spending a chunk of my twenties and thirties working in the financial markets in Chicago. And it was on a lunch break that I wandered into a bookstore (trying to get as far away from the noise of the open outcry on the trading floor as I could) and found What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I’d been a big reader as a kid, as a teenager. But it had been a long, long time (for some reason) since I’d read much of anything besides the daily paper and my horoscope. This collection of stories was a slim one, and, having fallen out of the practice of reading, I found its skinniness appealing. I stood in an aisle among fiction titles and other lunchtime browsers and read “Popular Mechanics,” the very short story about a couple who divide their things as they pull their marriage (and their baby, the reader comes to understand) apart.

“Holy sh…” I whispered to myself at the brief and stunning story. I turned the pages, looking for another –well—gut punch, I guess.

Still standing, I read “The Bath.”

“You can do that?” I don’t know if I said this out loud, but whenever I think about that day in the bookstore decades ago (and I think about it often), I hear those words in my head. “You can do that?”

What I meant: you can write a story that ends in such a tragic and bleak way that it hurts like looking at something too shiny, too beautiful, and make your reader come back for more? My reading history had held mostly popular fiction, the books my girlfriends shared full of wish fulfilment and happy endings, or in school, stories with lessons, morals. I think it was all of that goodness, happiness, and lesson teaching that drove me away from reading in the first place. Finding a happy ending or moral in books and movies is easy, like microwaving a Hot Pocket for lunch. Happy, moralistic endings are sweet and comforting but ultimately without much nourishment and far from satisfying. I had grown tired of Hot Pockets.

The book club high above the city wanted (as some book clubs do) happy endings; not even the endings of my stories that I consider to be hopeful and bittersweet, nor the moments inside the stories that provide grace, caring, human connection, were enough for them. I told them I don’t often do happy endings, and they were disappointed. I was disappointed, too, that they would rather leave the pages of a book happy than curious and longing. If everyone lives happily ever after, then we don’t need to wonder about them anymore, do we? I passed up striving for the happy ending in order to try to create something that might be beautiful and moving, that might make me ache a little. For me as a writer, as a reader, reaching an ending where I find beauty and where I am moved, even if it’s a sad ending, makes me happy. But I didn’t tell them that, I hadn’t yet put it into words for myself. Even so, I don’t think it would have mattered.

“I was even starting to worry about you,” the woman at the other end of the table said (like I lacked some sort of moral fiber,) conflating the sorry parts of my characters’ lives with my own.

I have a good and happy life. I do. A solid job. A caring husband. Cats and travel and friends. And yet, some of the most remarkable moments that I carry with me, that I have been exceptionally moved by, changed by, stunned by, are these: the unexpected news of the death of my father when I was fifteen and the way one of my brothers sunk to the floor in grief and despair; my nephew, afraid of me for some reason on a sunny afternoon, dashing across a wet patio and slipping, scraping his knees and hands and crying in embarrassment and pain; a grade school guidance counselor dabbing her own eyes as she told me of my brother’s attempt at suicide; my mother dying in the middle of the night while I held her; coming home to an empty apartment after my first husband moved out, the hollow sound that came from the lock as I turned it.

These are the moments I want to tell, to write, the ones that leave me a little raw, that hold love and loneliness and memory and pain and suffering and survival. “Beauty is created out of the labor of human hands and minds. It is to be found, precarious, at some tense edge where symmetry and asymmetry, simplicity and complexity, order and chaos, contend,” the chemist and poet Roald Hoffman wrote.

“Your characters are so stupid,” the book club lady said. Or something like that. And what I now wish I had said: “Yes, yes they are. And so are you. And so am I.” Because let’s face it, we are all just stupid people, carrying our hurt around. Even the smartest among us make mistakes, take the wrong turn, sit when we should stand up, drop the thing we should catch. We are fallible and we are resilient. James Salter said to the Paris Review: “I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live.” Live, Salter said, not triumph.

And happy endings or no, this is what I want. I want my characters, these stupid people, to face it (whatever it is) unflinchingly, I want them to carry their hurt around, I want them to stand at the tense edge where order and chaos contend. And most of all, I want my characters, my stupid characters, to live.