street art of an owl

Austin, Texas

I once dated a bull rider, which is very interesting, I still find. He was at the time no longer a bull rider, he had rather been one in his youth, but this lingered, as you might expect. This was in a part of the country where bull riders are not so rare as they are in the northeast, though still rare enough for people to lean forward when they hear. The only time he visited with my family we played a board game where everyone shouts out words, and would you believe a card came up “Things You Can Ride.” Even this cosmic wink could not keep together two with only the two-step in common. But the two-step itself married me to rambling dancehalls for joyful months after, a sweating Dos Equis in one hand and the other free for the taking.

During most mornings of my first solo vacation in Austin, I began walking two miles for the breakfast chilaquiles at a Mexican place covered in murals. I was there, nursing my third iced tea, when I received a call back from Marcus at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Several days earlier, I had taken a photo of a handmade sign on a chainlink fence, advertising Roadrunners For Sale. I’d texted it to my sister and she’d confirmed that it is not legal to sell or trade this particular migratory bird. That they are in fact migratory was news to me, having seen them myself only in cartoons, but I’d quickly risen to their defense with the righteous zeal of an outsider. I was now given the update that the yard had been visited and no roadrunners glimpsed. The homeowner claimed his sign referred to two dilapidated yard ornaments he hoped to sell – the kind where a rough cutout of a bird is pierced near the bottom with a pin, to which attach two wooden legs that spin in the wind. That this was an outrageous falsehood, Marcus and I agreed. We thanked each other, I discovered I’d been charged for a margarita though it was 9:15am and I did not drink one, and when I passed again there was no longer a sign. Down the same sidewalk I later followed a pure white peacock some distance to a taco stand, where he turned off on business of his own.

Trees in Austin, TX

“Sarah, meet Piper. Piper was our coxswain for the Gay Games, back in ’98.” I’m then offered the use of her driveway teardrop camper and, when I pre-apologize for the noise I will surely make entering the house for a night pee, she suggests I use the lawn. She keeps an old jar on the counter for contributions equal to whatever weed you consume and you is anyone who might arrive for food, or music. A purple scar runs from one hipbone to the other, where her belly flesh was taken to replace what cancer took from her breasts; perfect and fierce, she does not flinch. As I make my way back to her teardrop, he llegado temprano becomes the first Spanish I’ve spoken outside the classroom. I have arrived early. It’s an easier construction for me than the simple past tense (I arrived early) but carries a whiff of pretension, the self-announcement, like I’m one of those costumed long-trumpet announcers at a renaissance court. I’m that trumpeter and also me, at the same time, but sweaty and now interrupting this anxious woman who cleans the next door rental. Across the street is a food truck with a huge agave painted amateurishly on its side and in the center is a drainage valve, from which drips discolored liquid. It reminds me of an afterword I read, in which the author wrote of the many school boards who had banned her work. Her life, really, since the story was her own. Things made visible that we wish weren’t.

I also began, during this trip, to record the title of each book I finish. It’s a practice I’ve maintained, for no obvious posterity, in the two years since. On a more recent visit to North Carolina I discover that the elder Vanderbilt did the same throughout his life. Over the decades spanning the turn of the century, he was averaging 81 books per year. I am not, but my list is anyway rewarding, and I’ve begun placing a small asterisk next to notable reads (for whom, still unclear). The titles weave a long poem, one after the other: Greater Hope, Disappearing Earth, Desert Solitaire, North Water, Shell Collector, Coffee Elsewhere, Splendid Isolation. Wolves, Faithful, Ordinary. Tyranny, Tar.

Histories travel along beside, as we follow, and as we lead. Words rise up to the music and sure, I’ll raise an early morning glass to rhythm and stillness, all that lies ahead.


Sarah Dunphy-Lelii teaches psychology at Bard College in Annandale, NY, with research interests in autism, primate cognition, and the way preschool aged children think. She recently spent a half year in Kibale National Park, Uganda, tracking wild chimpanzees. Her academic writing has appeared in journals including the Journal of Cognition and Development, Folia Primatologica, and Scientific American; her creative work appears or will appear in Plume and Pinyon Review.

Photos by author.


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