This year's October was warm and sunny, and I was at home recovering from surgery while the leaves changed color and fell. It took me a week to abandon the thought that I would somehow be able to work from home, and to realize that worrying about work depleted the little energy I had. I was, as I had been told to expect, weak and sore and deeply tired. Whenever I noticed myself worrying about or planning for my return to work, I visualized a pair of scissors snipping taut threads and letting them fall out of sight. I watched, instead, the benign sunshine as it circled my living room, watched my cats as they moved across the rug and furniture with the window-shaped patches of light, as if riding them. It didn't take long to be lulled into a kind of calm that I hadn't felt for a long time. I settled in my recliner with my laptop and alternated, dizzyingly, between reading Somerset Maugham and Padgett Powell and writing and napping. For six weeks my quiet sunny apartment held intact the fragile quiet and calm that I needed to heal. I realized or remembered that quiet and calm were also what I need to focus on reading and writing stories, conditions that for years have been hard to come by.
And so now it's November, just before Thanksgiving. It's my first day back at work part-time. Outside the window next to my desk the woods are spare and stoic. Deer live in this patch of woods, separated from our school by a chain-link fence. They approach the fence, some mornings, of their own accord, and the children are allowed to get up from what they are doing to look out the windows at them.
Kenny, the head custodian, comes in late in the morning. I think he likes having an excuse to come into the ESL office because it's quiet here, separated as we are from the regular classrooms and cafeteria. He pauses in the doorway and whistles, softly, so as not to startle me, then comes in and asks if he can look out our windows. He's trying to catch sight of a coyote someone said they saw out in the woods. He can't look out the classroom windows because it would distract the kids from their work. It occurs to me that this would make an interesting point of view for a story: a school custodian who is also custodian, in his own mind, of the wild animals trying to survive outside the school. When my mind is calm and detached, as it is at this moment, situations quietly present themselves for my consideration, and I'm breathless with curiosity. I think, what can happen?
We lean over the wide sills, scanning the woods for movement, and as if to suggest a beginning for my story, Kenny tells me one he has told me before. One day he found a doe had entered the playground through the gate and couldn't find her way out. She was running back and forth along the chain-link fence and when he approached started jumping into the fence. It took him a half hour to get her to find her way out the gate and back to the woods. "She never knew I was trying to help her," he says, shaking his head. I listen and ask little questions that he doesn't hear. I have learned not to say "That's a good story" in case the storyteller thinks I'm implying they're making it up. What I mean is that I want to take it for myself. Sometimes, as a joke, I offer to pay them for it. People always say you can have it, take it, go ahead, there are more where that came from.
Kenny gives up on the coyote and leaves. A kid kicked a big hole in the wall of the cafeteria and he has to finish patching it before dismissal. I sit back down at my desk and find the place where I left off in the lesson plan I was writing and, watching the cursor blink where I left it, form the intention of writing a story about a custodian in an urban elementary school who hears about a coyote in the woods. The cursor blinks, the clock ticks, the heat kicks on, pillows of warm air descend over my desk. I feel the familiar pulse of that mixture of dread and elation, embedded, like blood vessels in muscle, in the experience of conceiving of and writing a short story, accompanied by the same old questions, which zig zag between hope and doubt, curiosity and the dread of not writing the story. What can happen? What if I turn away?
I wonder about those mornings when the deer approach the fence and the children approach the windows: Who turns away first? I imagine the children turn away first because, like Kenny, they have to, called back by their teachers to the rigors and routines of the school day. I imagine that, the evening after this happens, some of the deer dream about being watched by children and some of the children dream about being watched by deer. I like dreams because I like the idea of our minds taking the reins and letting things happen, unjustified and inevitable and unbidden. I know how the children feel, wanting to know more about something that is about to disappear, or worse, something that is always there but that they may not have time for.