It was one of those nights that had an undercurrent of energy so subtle you can never be quite sure if it was positive or negative. All you really know at the time is that you can feel it, and you don’t even really know that it will eventuate in anything, if anything is coming. You just know you feel… charged.
In High School, our source for alcohol was usually Zeke, the freckle-covered red-headed product of the White Trashiest family I knew, before I even knew about White Trash. Zeke worked at the IGA and despite his less-than-stellar IQ, knew how to wangle items that weren’t officially on the inventory books. On this particular night, this included a bottle of champagne and a case of beer that took crappy to the extreme.
Todd, myself, and a newish friend named Chris had decided to just cruise the backroads and consume this alcohol, knowing that we would undoubtedly park in a spot to be designated as “celebratory” and pop the champagne, and then use it for those purposes and not necessarily in getting us drunk. That, of course, was what the beer was for.
Chris was the grandson of an old woman in town whose name we all knew not only for it’s humour factor but for it’s infamy in the Old Schoolhouse Lore. While her first name was the same as Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend, her last name was the same as the bruise-style mark that young lovers leave on each other’s necks. You can imagine how much fun it was to even say. In fact, go for it. Go on, say it. See? Funny.
She’d retired just after most of our older siblings had received her dementia-addled tutelage, so we’d heard all about how crazy she was before she finally became a recluse in her rather nice home in the centre of town. For lack of proper parenting or the fact that he was just a sleazebag, Chris had come to our tiny town to finish out his High School years and do his best to stay out of trouble. Why his parent or guardian thought this would be done best with a batshit-crazy 78-year old woman I have yet to figure out. Regardless, his grandmother was about as grandmotherly as Chris was trustworthy, and she called him “slippery” whenever she got a chance.
If I think about it now, I suppose I was drawn to him because of his strong resemblance to my brother, another very “slippery” character. Maybe Chris was my chance to make up for my brother’s shortcomings and dishonesty by inflicting my better influences on him. An opportunity to show that somehow goodness and honesty will triumph over all. I was 17 and obviously a bit misguided, though to be perfectly honest, I don’t know how much has changed other than that I don’t openly mock old women anymore.
The 3 of us piled into Todd’s ’78 Jeep that night and set off in search of not only somewhere to discreetly drink ourselves into a stupor, but also to suitably celebrate something. Anything, really. We’d taken to habit of having no destination, with a fair bit of instinct thrown in, and headed up a quiet road connecting a neighbouring town with another called “Joliet”. Intelligently enough, we called it, “The Joliet Road”. Low on traffic and heavy with turnoffs and quiet, we eventually just pulled the Jeep over onto the shoulder and continued our drinking in earnest. The energy was at a bit of a lull at this point, but was strong enough for us to think that the best place for this little party of ours was in the middle of the road. Coincidentally enough “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues crooned from the stereo about being a “Soul Man” and the atmosphere was right.
This section of road was one of the few decently paved and painted parts, and actually felt quite modern to lay on and suck down awful-tasting beer. The night was cool, even for mid-Summer, and the view was spectacular. The night sky was bountiful with its stars and the crisp air gave them a shine that was almost unnatural. The energy was in them too, but completely positive in nature. For no other reason than we’d run out of beer and it needed opened, we popped the champagne to toast the stars.
Taking turns off the bottle meant that one had to deal with the inevitable blast of bubbles upon tipping the bottle up, so the actions had to be fairly quick. Todd was busy telling Chris a story very animatedly, and while I can’t remember the story I know it didn’t interest me more than the bitter bite of the bubbles and the magnificent constellation-filled sky. Either due to his drunkenness or his innate clumsiness (a debate that would rage well into our adulthoods) Todd inexplicably swung his arm around behind him in a wide arc, illustrating something in his story and hammering the bottom of the bottle with full force into my mouth.
Surprise more than pain was what made me exclaim, and I gently probed the fragmented bits of sharpness in my mouth while Todd barely skipped a beat in finishing his story to Chris. Mixed with something smooth and sharp was a powdery residue, the unpleasantness of such being enough to make me spit all of it onto the road. I swirled my tongue around in my mouth and discovered that my right front tooth had a lower quadrant broken off. Shock hit, in that way that you imagine it feels to a character in a movie about to get eaten by a Tyrannosaur, and I half-expected the world to stop until my tooth could get sorted out, or at least pause long enough for me to get over the sheer vanity of knowing that my smile was broken.
“You broke my fucking tooth man,” I said, trying to impede my speech as much as possible to enforce the gravity of the situation upon my devil-may-care of a friend. Chris lifted his eyebrows and gave the expected “Holy shit…” though the sincerity of this was lost in the fact that he was always superb at giving the expected response. Todd barely gave me a look and commented that this kind of thing must really suck. They both looked concerned enough, for a minute, and then that was it. Todd went back to a recap of his story before the two of them ambled up the closest hillside to take in the view and toast more things with the champagne.
I knelt onto the asphalt in an effort to salvage any of the larger pieces of my tooth, not knowing this makes almost no difference to modern dentistry, and became increasingly frustrated by the cavalier attitude of my friends as well as the fact that little white bits of enamel are impossible to find on a pebble-strewn asphalt road in the middle of the night. I climbed up the incline after them.
I repeated my earlier statement with as much of my frustration and anger I could express, putting my body well into Todd’s personal space. He laughed with a shrug, with as little care as one could imagine, and offered me the bottle with a comment about how I probably needed that more than him. Chris’s laughter only spurred Todd on as I first took a drink and then attempted to clue Todd in to the damage he’d caused. Knowing that I was fighting an uphill battle, I did my best to at least get him to do the bare minimum and apologise. He didn’t seem to understand what it was that I was expecting of him. Or worse, he did and wouldn’t give it up.
The wide expanse of the Montana plains spread out before us, the clusters of lights indicating the various towns neighbouring our own. We settled for a minute and pointed out the names of those towns, feeling the somewhat chilling wind through our denim jackets, and the energy pulsed suddenly as I asked Todd to say that he was sorry. I’d been waiting, patiently I thought, and wanted to hear it now. I demanded it.
His response dumbfounded me, as he looked at my like I was crazy before telling me that he wasn’t at all sorry. The energy spiked through he and I and the next thing I knew Todd and I were yelling at each other while Chris struggled to stay physically in between the two of us. Chris did his best to try and explain that Todd didn’t think he should have to say “Sorry” because he didn’t mean to break my tooth. I did my best to explain how that isn’t how it works, and the energy ebbed. I found myself labouring for validating feedback from Todd, recalcitrant as ever, or even from Chris, who simply wanted the situation over by me shutting up. I grew beyond frustrated.
The energy suddenly peaked as I backed a few feet away and began to lecture from the top of my lungs about how incredibly flawed that thinking was and how that wasn’t what “Sorry” meant at all. I felt strong and invincible as I screamingly explained that I would teach Todd all about having a broken tooth by doing it myself. My fist cocked and his defensive stance told me that he not only wasn’t sorry, but was more than willing to defend himself against what I perceived as justice. This only made me more inclined to teach his ass a lesson. Like a wild animal I began to take the first of a few measured steps before I planned to launch myself at him.
It was in this moment that the energy changed, and I don’t even really know how it did so drastically. Maybe the realisation of two best friends that they shouldn’t be fighting drunkenly over what equates to poor communication, maybe it was just the sheer power of that night, maybe it was the power and innocence of what came wandering towards us from out of the night.
We heard her well before we saw her, cagily walking back along a fenceline and whimpering at us. It was more than just the magic of an animal in need at such a highly charged moment, it was the logical notion that anything domesticated way out there in the wild had to have travelled a very long way and was probably much more than just lost. We discussed the possibility of abandonment as we cautiously approached her in our assumption that it was just a dog making those noises.
I saw the porcupine quills before I saw her face, as they shone in the night like neon whiskers, and instantly figured out the reason for her incessant whimpering. I was more concerned with getting her through the fence without catching any of the quills than of what Chris first noticed and then Todd voiced. “Holy shit, that’s a coyote” he’d stated with gravity. As I crouched and reached my hand to her, I hesitated for a brief second before I figured that this new information didn’t really mean that much to me. Especially given that the animal had sought us out, and not the reverse.
We got her through the fence and scooped her up, all thoughts of violence forgotten as we collectively moved with care with our new friend in our arms. We carefully trekked across the field and down the hill to the Jeep, discussing our next move and eventually deciding on venturing into the nearest town to the only thing open, the 24-hour truck stop.
The wind cut through the holes in my jean jacket and stung my ears as I quietly rode in the truckbed on the way into town. I spoke to her the entire time, soothing her with my words and ensuring her that the pliers on my Swiss Army Knife were more than capable of removing the multiple causes of her distress. By the time we got to the truckstop we were all suitably calm and focussed. We parked under one of the giant lights and Chris and Todd made their way to the back of the kitchen to hopefully find some scraps of food to calm her.
One of the night cooks happened to be outside on a smoke break and asked the boys what they were up to. As the Jeep was parked on the far end of the parking lot, the obvious reason for their request of food scraps wasn’t clearly visible. The cook went inside and a waitress eventually leaned out of the back door, looked upon the dirty and unkempt youths, and handed a well-presented take-out box full of a ground beef hash of some sort with an apologetic, “Sorry it couldn’t be more…”
Only after the coyote had begun happily scarfing down the food did it finally sink in that they obviously thought that Todd and Chris were begging for food for themselves, and not some imagined wounded animal they’d happened upon. As I held her in my lap and watched her eat, I had to admit that the dinner looked pretty appetising and probably meant for human consumption. As if sensing what was to come, she suddenly stopped eating and looked tentatively at my hands and the tool they held.
There’s a trick to extracting porcupine quills from a dog’s muzzle, as the swelling can make it almost impossible to pull them straight out, and I convinced myself that it was my expertise at this trick, and not the amazing bravery of that small coyote, that kept her still and almost unflinching during the ordeal. It was only after roughly 12 of the 14 quills were pulled that she started to squirm, and some tender words quieted her right down.
Our drunken buzz quelled by adrenaline, and the rush of even that fading quickly, we headed back to Todd’s house, dropping Chris off at his crazy grandmother’s on the way. After applying a bit of antiseptic and getting her settled in a blanket-lined cardboard box, we decided that we were going to keep her. Our earlier differences, so all-consuming at the time, were now forgotten as we almost simultaneously both suggested what we name her. More for the road we found her on than our favourite Blues performer, we both grinned as we dubbed her “Joliet”.
Summer passed and school started, the coyote was accompanying us on our afterschool adventures most of the time, though she was increasingly spending more time in and out of Todd’s dad’s truck while he worked his various masonry jobs around the valley. Despite his cursing about “that goddam coyote” he’d taken quite a shine to her and was rarely seen without her. Her easy-going and bouncy demeanour clearly meant that she was tamed, though we never heard of any one having domesticated coyotes as pets despite spreading word that we’d found one on that deserted stretch of road. After a few months though, that didn’t matter, there was no way we would’ve given her up anyway.
The Fall brought football practice and homework, and the grainy texture to my now-repaired front tooth had just started to wear off when Todd approached me one day after football practice with what looked like his English homework in his hand. There was a gravity to the moment as he handed me his writing assignment and said “I want you to read this.”
If I counted the number of times in our life that Todd had ever been anything remotely resembling serious and mature, I could do it on one hand and have fingers left, it was that rare. This was clearly one of those moments, such that I withheld my usual smartass comment when I saw that he’d gotten an “A+” which I honestly thought teachers didn’t do any more. The assignment was to write a story from your life in which you learned a lesson.
Todd had titled his, “The Night I Learned to Say ‘Sorry'” and had written, in detail, about how he’d broken my tooth, how we’d almost fought, and had found our loving little companion. He wrote about how misguided he had been in his thoughts that “sorry” need only be said when there was intent in the actions and that you didn’t have to say “sorry” if you didn’t mean to hurt someone. He wrote about how he’d learned this lesson after nearly 18 years on this Earth. And he wrote it really well.
I’d honestly moved on from the whole thing quite some time before, and when I finished I did my best to hide the astonished look on my face as I faced his awaiting stare. I handed him the paper back as his serious face straightened, he looked me right in the eye and said, “I’m sorry”.
Years later, when Todd and I would have a few beers, a depending on who was around we would occasionally tell the story of the time that we almost had a fistfight, but not much more than that. When near a black light, or whenever it’s brought up, I’ll correct the assumption that my tooth suffered my love of hockey with the statement, “broke it on a bottle”. Further prompting, and a few more beers, and I’ll tell most of the story on my own, but I’ve never really told the whole story until just now.
Thanks for listening.