Ghosts of the Canyon Creative Nonfiction First published in The Los Angeles Review, Volume 10 - Fall 2011
Carved into the Verdugo Mountains, Chevy Chase Canyon rests in the northern stretch of Los Angeles County. It’s a quiet place where magnolias and oaks shade lawns thick with birds of paradise and obscene roses. Brick paths cut across and around these lawns, leading to wooden archways (painted absurdly saccharine colors like lemon or mint) that promise tidy backyards seamlessly meeting brown and green hillside. On a clear day, from the window of any living room in the canyon, you can see Catalina Island—that mythic land where the bison are not indigenous and movie stars drown. In August of 1981, less than two months after I was born, Cathy Keen left her three-year-old daughter, Kelly, alone in the living room of their Chevy Chase Canyon home while she did housework. Kelly walked out the front door, and a few seconds later a coyote attacked her. Its jaws clamped down on her neck, and the coyote dragged Kelly across the street. Robert Keen, Kelly’s father, was able to chase the animal off and rush Kelly to Glendale Adventist Hospital where she died of a broken neck and blood loss after four hours of surgery. Kelly became the first recorded victim of a fatal coyote attack in the U.S. My parents and I lived a block away from where the attack occurred. “You had a bouncy chair,” my mother told me recently. “It was outside by the house. I was always able to keep my eye on you, but after what happened to Kelly Keen, I was afraid to even let you out of the house.” “It was in all the newspapers and on all of the news shows,” my father added. “We were friends with a sheriff at the time, and he told us all about the investigation.” “What investigation?” I asked. “There were discrepancies in the autopsy report,” my dad said. “Various medical records said Kelly died of bodily harm that wouldn’t be typical of a coyote attack. Many believed that her father killed her and left her body in the gutter where the coyote found her. But, that was all just rumor, although people still talk.” Officially, the death certificate said she had died of a coyote mauling. In fact, coyotes were killed in droves in the months following the attack. The neighborhood utterly panicked. Records show that within a half-mile radius of where the attack happened, 55 coyotes were trapped and destroyed over the 80 days following Kelly’s death. It was at this time that we moved out of the canyon and into the flatland suburbs just south of the Verdugos, where no one believed the coyotes would go.
* * *
Suburban families want nature, but only on their terms. They want nature in boxes around their homes. They want trees perfectly pruned and lawns meticulously mowed with the hope that leafless driveways and prefabricated waterfalls will somehow prove their superiority over nature. The first patch of yellow in the grass requires attention. The first tangerine to fall to the dirt is removed almost instantly. Weeds are snatched from the ground faster than Angelina Jolie adopts children from Africa. Yet, the wild has a way of getting in. The wind will still destroy cable lines. Earthquakes will tear chimneys from the sides of houses. Rain will turn streets into rivers. Raccoons will make homes of your trashcans. Mockingbirds will use your heads for target practice. And coyotes will eat your babies. One morning, in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I woke early to go for a walk. It was one of those golden mornings in Southern California when the breeze is quietly filled with messages. I stood on my parents’ porch, stretching, marveling at the order with which humans put their lives together. The houses on my parents’ street—each a little different yet the same—all had porches and shutters for mouths and eyes. Cars rested on the curb. Newspapers dotted the ends of each driveway. The Verdugos, standing to the north, reassured me that there was something wild beyond the grid. And slipping from behind one of the cars was an unfamiliar dog-like creature, its legs tawny and tight, its body malnourished and saggy in the chest, its ears pointy and ripped. Patches of fur were missing, and it moved with aerodynamics I’d never seen. I was instantly afraid. Lifting its head, it looked at me. Then with silent steps, it turned and trotted down the street, disappearing across the imaginary borders of someone’s lawn, all but skipping down the driveway in arrogant reverie. This animal possessed a wildness, an aspect of desperate chaos that I knew couldn’t be defined as domesticated or human.
* * *
Susan was in her 50s. She lived across the street in a blue house she bought from an old couple that moved to Seattle. Susan loved the house so much that she poured her life savings into renovating it. And when the original wood floors were polished, and the lavender was planted along the stone walkway, and the birch trees stood directly in front of her diamond-pained windows, she and her cat, Cody, moved in. “Now,” she told me one Saturday afternoon. “I’m going to be gone for a week. It’s very important that you bring Cody in at night.” “Why?” I asked. “Cats spend the night outside all the time.” “I know,” she said. “But Cody’s a domesticated kitty, and he wouldn’t stand a chance against those coyotes. There didn’t used to be a lot of coyotes in this part of the city. They were always in the canyons, but now I see them walking down the street almost every morning as if they owned the place. Can you believe it? Anyway, do we have a deal?” “Yes,” I said. Over the next 10 years, I fell in love with Cody. He was a white house cat with four black spots. He jumped from tree to tree, chasing birds and squirrels. He arrived at my feet every night when I called his name. In my late teens, when I would get so mad at my parents and felt like throwing something, I’d run across the street and nap with Cody, with his nuzzling and purring the entire time. Every Christmas, a giant wreath would arrive on our doorstep, the card reading: “Merry Christmas! From Cody the Wonder Kitty.” Then, all together, Susan stopped travelling. She was laid off. The rumors started to swirl that she was heading deeper into her alcoholism. We heard stories of crashing sounds coming from inside her house in the middle of the night and reports of Cody appearing on the doorsteps of other houses meowing for shelter at two in the morning. The wild had found its way into Susan, and like the coyotes themselves, her depression had inched from the wild parts of the world and crossed the boundaries of her comfort.
* * * My best friend Ian lives permanently in Japan now, but in 2005, he moved in with my family for four months. He never adjusted to the time change and spent most of every night online, going to sleep at five a.m. Many an afternoon, I would ditch class and we’d sit out in the back yard. He chain-smoked while I told him stories of Drunk Susan across the street. “Is that the crazy lady with the red hair and the white cat?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said, “No one has seen her in months. She barely leaves the house. People hear rustling in her back yard in the middle of the night.” “I don’t think those sounds are her,” Ian said, smashing his cigarette into the butter dish my mother gave him to use as an ashtray. “It could be a coyote. I see them walking down your driveway all night. They scare the hell out of me. Last night, the sliding glass door was open, and I heard this yelping howl—Jesus, it was like nothing I’ve ever fucking heard. It sounded just so desperate.” He shook all over, as if trying to get a spider off his shoulder. “What no one understands,” he continued, “is that it’s our fault that there are more coyotes than there used to be. What I mean is that the higher we build up the mountains, the further south and into the valley the coyotes are going to come. They have no place to go, and the more we destroy their home, the more they survive.” Later that night, Ian and I decided to take a walk. “You know,” I said, as we stretched on the porch. “We used to live in the canyons over there.” I pointed to the Verdugos. “We used to live in Chevy Chase Canyon, but we moved because they said a coyote had killed a baby.” I exhaled and looked across the street. A piece of something white flopped sporadically across Susan’s lawn. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing. It took me a moment to recognize Cody, dangling by the neck from the mouth of a coyote dragging him across Susan’s lawn “Oh shit,” Ian said. “What should we do?” I ran after the coyote, trying to see if I could scare it. As it crossed the street, a car almost hit it. This must have scared it because it tripped on the curb, dropping Cody onto one of the nearby neighbor’s lawns. “Stay with Cody,” I said frantically. “I’ll get Susan.” Ian ran across the street to where Cody was crumpled into a heaving ball. I ran up Susan’s lavender-lined stone pathway and banged on her door. I called through the windows. Finally, the door creaked open, and she stood there in a tiny pink kimono, looking like a dazed monster. She was barely able to make eye contact. “A coyote attacked Cody,” I said tersely. “It dropped him, and he’s on the lawn down there. What should we do?” She teetered a bit and said, “Okay, go back and make sure the coyote doesn’t come back. I’ll call the vet and be around with the car in a minute to pick him up.” I walked over to Ian, who was squatting over Cody’s body. “Is he dead?” I asked. “No, not yet. He’s not good though.” I looked up and saw the coyote inching its way closer. I imagined how annoyed it must have been to have its meal taken away. “Shoo!” I said, clapping my hands. It ran off. “I can’t believe she passed out,” I said. “She always told me how important it was to bring him in.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the coyote stepping closer. Again, I shooed it away. “This cat is going to die,” Ian said. Again, the coyote tried to sneak closer. I clapped my hands, knowing that this coyote would remain on the scene of fresh blood as long as Cody remained. A few moments later, the headlights of Susan’s car lit up Cody’s body. His eyes were heavy, and he breathed in a stunned, laborious manner. The coyote stood a few feet behind the car. Susan scooped Cody up into a box. She put the box in the backseat of her car and drove away. The coyote disappeared. 20 minutes later, at the animal hospital, Cody died. The next morning, when I heard Cody had died, I imagined a connection between him and Kelly Keen—that their deaths were somehow supposed to remind us that as much as we think we can tame the wild, we can’t. We think we’re in control, but really, the more we grow, the more we have to keep the wild out. The wild will not submit to us; there will be no compromise, only man-made walls we vainly believe are strong enough to keep us safe. Chevy Chase Canyon continues to break out in a rash of pink houses and green lawns. At this very moment the rash spreads further and further up the canyon, while the coyotes find their way deeper into the city, laughing at the border we think exist.