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Center of the Universe (28)

Center of the Universe (28)



You can tell normalcy is making a comeback when the talk of the town turns to coyotes.

It was Hardie, back from eight years in Russia and bivouacked downstairs till his next adventure (currently underway in Asheville, NC), who first noticed. We got home from an evening jaunt to the city, and our son told us he’d heard what sounded like a woman’s scream in the woods behind — above — our house. And when he went out and swept the hill with the flashlight, he could see the glowing eyes.

Pretty sure, it’s coyotes, he said. And baby coyotes.

Pretty soon, we were sure he was right. Every other night we were hearing the woman’s scream — really a girl’s scream, an ingenue’s, an elongated horror-movie shriek that trailed off insinuatingly, a battery of them. And sure enough, shine a light — and horror-movie eyes.

We kinda liked them. The novelty. The cinematic drama. The reminder that, amid our tree-hugging civilization of 7,000, nature was still out there. Not just the deer, who were out there a-plenty, right on the other side of the chicken-wire, trying to figure how to get in, but nature from the badass end of the spectrum. And we figured we didn’t have much to fear. We no longer had a runty black-and-white cat named Ivy or a sawed-off Corgi called Pepper running around the yard — both gone to their richly deserved rewards. But we did wonder what would happen, with no predators in the neighborhood, as the critters multiplied.

Well, they multiplied, and much faster than a guy who flunked biology might imagine. Within months, it had gone from five or six pairs of eyes, to a dozen, eighteen. And from scattered screams to a high-soprano chorus that drove the dogs of Wreden Avenue nuts.

And then one warm September afternoon I’m at the table on the deck — my favorite place to write — working on another thousand overcooked words about Sorella Caffe — my favorite place to eat — when my peripheral vision (homo sapiens’ most underrated faculty) signaled movement. It took my regular vision awhile to find it, but there, poking around the wooden retaining wall was a sniffing snout, then scanning eyes, then — having judged an aging, out-of-shape scrivener to be no threat whatsoever — the entire teenage coyote, which strutted down the slanting wall into our yard and turned to walk up the path toward me.

Did you hear about the coyotes? she said with that impish grin. Up on Berry Trail, they ate half a dog’s ass.

Now I’m not brave. But I am stupid. And my wife says I’m a teenaged girl when it comes to social media (a stereotype, my dearest, that fails to take into account the reality that Facebook today is 100% the aged and out-of-shape). So the first thing I thought about was not survival, but content: how might this encounter enliven my Facebook feed? I slowly turned the phone on the table horizontal, set it to video and aimed at the advancing beast. I hoped, vaguely, the creature wasn’t rabid. Other than that, no time for existential worry. And I figured that what I lacked in ferocity of aspect I more than made up for in bulk. What’s this guy gonna do with 240 pounds?

Turns out, I was right, this time. I wasn’t killed and, in the process, got some killer clickbait.

Two months later, times have changed.

One friend passed, and we went to Amsterdam for six weeks to collect ourselves, having taken care of him for close to a year. And while we were there, a tragic flaw in the US electoral system deposited an aged, out-of-shape white man of distinctly amoral tendencies atop the government’s executive branch. And after we came back, a week after, a bigger, deeper, more stupefying tragedy.

It was ten days more before we limped into Sorellas for our first Saturday in the back room since the loss of two beautiful young friends — and so many of their beautiful friends — in what has come to be TV-logo-ized as the Oakland Warehouse Fire. There were non-perfunctory hugs all around, and no one had to say why. Once more, going to Sorellas offered much of what you look for in a family — but without the family. Or the bad ones (you know who you are).

The sisters were there, of course, and Sonia made sure to immediately come out from the kitchen for hug-time, which on a busy Saturday she can’t always do. Then, back in the kitchen, she sent over appetizers (deep-fried calamari with spicy sauce!) and Italian salads and other bonus delectables to hug us all over again. Hugs from Soy and Heather and Wendy. And, most touchingly, from the newest busser Gerardo, brother of longtime busser Rafael, who lay a sympathetic arm on my shoulder. Hugs from every direction. From Val, our friend from the kids’ playgroup a million years ago, who always adds a kiss. A smile, a kiss and a squeeze of both hands from Maria. And when Rev. Kang, the old-school Asian, went in for a handshake, I grabbed him for a hug, too. Later, after he asked about the lost kids, he did that thing Kang does when his eyes start to fill — the tsk of solace, that quiet, eccentric clucking with the sideways swipe of the head.

Which always makes me think of the things he’s seen.

In the way back corner of the back, a young woman was waving. I waved a halfhearted reply, until, as she pushed back her chair and approached, I recognized an angel. Jamie, the wondrous single mother of four who’d found and tended to our friend Sandy when he was felled in the Citibank parking lot. Jamie, whose love and courage had been the entire point of my eulogy of Sandy. Jamie, who now offered a hug that was about our bond from a prior tragedy and didn’t know the latest, the worst. And even as the embrace offered comfort and spoke of the enduring affection that can germinate in sadness, it emphasized how that sadness has so quickly and cruelly compounded.

For the first time anyone could remember, Wendy was alone at the spinet. Dave had the sniffles, she told me, which is always worrisome. Steve the bassist was playing a holiday party. John the drummer, too. No harmonica player showed. No tenor sax. But at the last minute, thankfully, here comes Carol with her rolly bag of flute things, so Wendy wouldn’t have to play alone.

And then, together, we went forward — with stories, jokes, news, opinions, teasing and unabashed chitchat — to restore, amid clinking cutlery and tinkling piano, the unheartbreaking flow of the everyday.

For one thing, we sang Carol happy birthday. For another, we heard Soy say she thinks the blog is selling lasagna. For still another, Flo.

At her regular spot, the two-top nearest the piano and right behind us, fangirl Flo was grooving on Wendy and Carol and finishing her Saturday supper. (And, by the way, she’s not Flor, as someone told me and I wrote earlier. It’s Flo — no R.) Turning around to introduce Flo-no-R to Val, Roni requested a command performance of the Coffee Roastery story: how the manager had called the cops — assuming drugs or other nefariousness — when Flo, their devoted, 70-plus-year-old customer had got stuck, and then frozen, terrified even, in the bathroom for twenty minutes. And while Flo delights in telling her tale of injustice, what she really wanted to talk about tonight was the local wildlife.

Did you hear about the coyotes? she said with that impish grin, on the edge of laughter, beneath her no less impish white halo of Orphan Annie curls.

Up on Berry Trail, they ate half a dog’s ass, she continued. And not just a little yappy dog. A medium dog!

She measured the dog with her hands: Sixty pounds!

Which pushed me and Roni over the edge of laughter, even though Berry Trail is the footpath that crosses the steep hill just above the retaining wall that keeps that hill out of our backyard — the wall the coyote peeked around.

After ensuring her story had landed with maximum effect, Flo amended that they’d been able to, in her words, sew it back on. It wasn’t, she clarified, the whole ass.

And so I pulled out my phone to show the coyote video to Val. And said to Heather that, in light of the emerging fame of the lasagna, I could think of ordering nothing else. And Kang wanted to hear more about the Netherlands. And Roni and Maria and Val discussed how Maria’s maiden name, Valerio, was the same as Val’s first name, Valerie. And Kang brought forth a surprise gift, a big bag of kale from their garden. And Wendy, finishing her set, slipped into the kitchen for off-menu chicken wings with spicy red sauce (same as the calamari) and plopped a full basket in front of me — after I’d gorged on lasagna. You gotta try these, she insisted. And Gary, at the head of the table beside his stylishly black-clad 20-something daughter, reminded me: Save the bones for Doobie. Because his sick cannibal of a cockatoo loves nothing more than chicken bones. And John swung by after his holiday gig sporting his new David Letterman beard.

And normalcy settled on us like a warm blanket.

Center of the Universe (29)

Center of the Universe (29)

Center of the Universe (27)

Center of the Universe (27)