Seasonal change was descending in its temperamental, plague-like way in fits and spurts on the middle of the country. There was a false sense to the air, all the wrong smells. That spring, Sheila bought herself a single-speed bicycle from the outdoor auction along Interstate 80. She rode it down the Coralville strip to work. She pedaled fast, as if to keep up with traffic — an exercise in futility — and swallowed the air in gulps. When she reached the Sinclair station, Sheila felt faintly dazed, like someone about to pass out. Sometimes she saw black spots where the white line of road was supposed to be. “You all right? Miss?” Motorists would lean their heads out windows when Sheila stopped on the shoulder of the highway to catch her breath. Or sometimes: “Lady, get out of the road!” This was Iowa; no one rode bikes along the highway. Bicycling was a nice hobby for children but not a reliable mode of transportation. For Sheila, this was the most exhilarating part of the day. This was the only exhilarating part of the day.
It was the spring of the year that coyote sightings started garnering national attention. The headlines sounded like a string of bad jokes: coyote walks into a bar. coyote caught sleeping in mattress shop. pack of coyotes causes delays at o’hare. The scientific community insisted there was nothing to worry about, that the species was extremely adaptable, that they mostly traveled at night, that they rarely ate domestic pets without provocation. Yet, people couldn’t help but notice how stealthily the coyotes seemed to be infiltrating the small towns and cities. Morning joggers complained of coyotes crouched behind trees along public parks. The presence of the animals often wasn’t witnessed firsthand by more than a few early risers. But hearing of such sightings was enough — also knowing they were out there at night, outsmarting the rats, sleeping in the alleys.
It felt as if entire ecosystems had become confused. That fall, two whales had dragged their giant bellies onto dry land. The whales seemed determined to beach themselves despite rescuers’ efforts to return them to the water. Strange symbiotic relationships were popping up everywhere, often involving the abandoned offspring of one species adopting an unlikely surrogate parent. A lion cub might choose a lizard as its mother and receive a five-minute slot on the evening news, curbing coverage of the latest political corruption scandal or plane crash.
There were other things too. Even in the Midwest, anyone could tell that the whole planet was out of whack. It had been too warm for snow until well after New Year’s. The salt truck drivers were mad as hell. Shovel sales were way down. It was months later that all that hovering precipitation finally found its way to street level. March came in like a lion, went out like a lamb being devoured by a coyote. Which is to say that it warmed up, but in a sneaky, violent way that made everyone slow to pull out their lighter clothes, so as not to look gullible at a time when everything felt like a fluke.
You could feel all this in the air, riding to work each day. Sheila was a gas station attendant right now, and she was a model employee. Four days a week she biked along the strip, straight from school to the station. She never missed a shift. She never called in sick. She was saving up. She had a year’s worth of deposits in the bank — all from working at the Sinclair station — and when that growing fund hit a certain number, she was leaving the country for an undetermined length of time. She was buying a plane ticket to Paris, and anyone who had a problem with that could shove it. “France?” her father said when Sheila told him her destination. When he said it, the whole country sounded like an adolescent stunt, a dog in a plaid coat and socks. “Remind me again what’s wrong with your own country? Are you hearing this?” he’d ask Sheila’s mother, who would shake her head or shrug. Her sister, Andrea, and her sister’s fiancé, Donny, thought it was a frivolous way to spend money. They were saving to open a restaurant. Andrea was watching prices for lots on the west side of town. There was a business plan. It was going to be called Donny’s Grill. The two of them were a little too entrepreneurial for Sheila’s taste.
“But you do all the cooking,” Sheila had protested.
“Yeah, well, it’s a team thing. We’re a team, okay? Teamwork? Does that mean anything to you?” asked Andrea. “Think about it. Would you eat at a place called Donny and Andrea’s Grill?”
“No,” said Sheila.
“No, you wouldn’t. And you know why? ’Cause it’s too friggin’ long. Besides,” she said, “we’re going to try doing all the cooking together.”
Andrea had moved out of the house two years ago, which was about how long she had been engaged. She started wearing acrylic fingernails so that the hand with her ring didn’t look so otherwise lonely and unadorned. She favored shades of salmon. As a girl Andrea had been overweight and eager to fall in love. Sheila wanted, of course, to fall in love, but not with someone like Donny. Not with someone from Iowa.
Sleeping in her parents’ house, Sheila would sometimes wake to the wheels of jeeps screeching around the corner. As they turned near the street, several boys would shout, “Iowa Hawkeye football!” Then they would make animal noises. The real animals that lived nearby were quiet, frantic things that made no sounds. Squirrels that scattered and little sparrows that hopped between the cracks in the sidewalk, scouting out crumbs with an awkward deference. Most of the animals that had been indigenous to the land before the college moved in had been preserved in the Iowa Museum of Natural History on the third floor of Macbride Hall. There, they were stuffed and arranged before paintings of their natural habitats, interacting with predators, feeding their young. Several prairie dog pups curled up close beside their sleeping mother; rabbits and ground birds were positioned as if scurrying at the feet of an elk. A single coyote in a large case did nothing but stare straight ahead, sitting off to the side of the other animals, as if it were too proud to act alive. The plaque outside its case said, “Mountain coyote. Genus and species: Canis latrans lestes. Indigenous to Nevada and California, the species can be found from the Rocky Mountains westward, as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Arizona and New Mexico.”
The coyote, the sign explained, takes its name from the Spanish word coyote — coyote from coyote! This redundancy struck Sheila as hilarious — but the scientific name was derived from the Latin: barking dog. Coyotes were wilder, noisier cousins of dogs: kept later hours, spanned greater territories. Their hunting was marked by extraordinarily relentless patience. Coyotes were stubborn, though also oddly adaptable. Their communication, described as howls and yips, was most often heard in the spring, but also in the fall, the time of year when young pups leave their families to establish new territories. “You idiot, you could have gone anywhere,” she wanted to say to the coyote in the case, “and you came to Iowa?” But the coyote still seemed young; clearly, it either was the progeny of transients, or it migrated straight to Iowa only to be promptly shot and stuffed.<...