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After Midnight.

It's long past my bedtime, but I'm restless. Maybe I didn't really need to answer those emails till tomorrow; maybe I just wanted to stay awake, alone in my living room, stretching into unscheduled hours. My husband's in bed, and I should go too, but there's more I want from the night.

If I go to sleep, my dreams will be lit by the noon sun. Buildings in my dreams will cast no shadows; they won't invite a second glance. It's always that way: my dreams are as ordinary as workdays. I should go to bed, but I know that if I go out walking instead, the real night outside my door will do what my sleeping mind cannot: it will plunge my ordinary neighborhood into mystery. Dark houses will loom, strange and significant. Porch lights will shine like spotlights on fences and tricycles, granting them a drama worthy of the dreams I crave.

It's one in the morning. I'm heading out to see what darkness and moonlight have made of my neighborhood. I'm heading out in search of dream images.

As I pass the streetlight in front of my house, my shadow emerges from my body and slips ahead. The space surrounding the light is a bright room, and only after my shadow stretches and fades can I really see the street beyond. It's long and empty. My neighbors have parked their cars for the night, and their houses are dark except for the silent storms of TV shows. I look at the street rolling into the distance, at its endless file of lights, and I imagine it hypnotizing a lonely pedestrian. Her house's promise of burbling oatmeal would lose its power to pull her from the road. She'd stop looking for the stars that glimmered beyond these lights; she would just keep walking.

Once when I was sitting on this curb, talking on the phone, a possum heard me and froze for forty minutes atop a narrow fence. I left twice, hoping to give it a chance to escape, but when I returned, there it was. Now I walk, thinking of the two thin coyotes I've often seen slinking up my street past the yards of furry, fun-loving dogs. At a car's distant rumble, they always vanish, and every time I call to them, they jump, but late one summer night, I saw one of them yawn and lie down on the cool roadbed.

The street ahead is bare and wide. Shadowed by bits of gravel, its surface looks like the hollows under the eyes of a chronic insomniac. I stop under a streetlight. Crickets run back and forth across the curb's pale lip. A small black widow hangs from a web strung between the curb and a rose garden's brick frame. A cricket strays up the curb, and the widow dances up and down her web in anticipation. The cricket stands still. I walk on.

I love this street, its alien silence, its desolation, its expanse. But it's too bright; I can hardly see the yards beyond its row of lights. I know a street without public lighting. It lies on my neighborhood's edge, just this side of the National Forest, at the foot of the mountains. One of these days someone will demand that it too be lit against bears and burglars, but I'm on my way there now.

A slope of native scrub to my left, a tall oleander hedge to my right, I descend into a slight valley, walking between two choruses of crickets. This is Camellia Drive, just twelve feet across, moonlit. Overhead I can see the gibbous moon, but the steep slope to my left blocks the mountain front.

The street levels out beneath the slope and curves away from it. Here on the valley bottom, both sides of the street are stocked with houses, houses standing close together but exchanging no small talk. Each house stands stark and solitary, a stranger to its neighbors. Each house stares at the street, fierce with silence, posing.

Before me, a garage light streams across a crew-cut lawn to spotlight four white plastic lawn chairs. The chairs look ready to host four broad rumps. The house behind them reminds me of a brand new double-wide, cheap and synthetic. Some days I think this suburb of L.A. is no more than a suburb of Hollywood--its neighborhood newspapers are filled with ads for liposuction and cheek implants. But now I feel like I'm standing back in the Midwest. I can almost see the people who live here. They half-believe that their house is capable of shielding them from storms of desire. This weekend they will come out to their yard to grill bratwurst and eat in the sunlight. As soon as they finish their supper, they will carry their plates to the dishwasher, closing their door too early to hear all the dogs sending greetings through the dusk.

I grew up in an inner-ring suburb, hemmed in by sensible Minnesotans and sprawl. If I wanted contact with any mystery beyond human design, I had to find it in the grid of residential streets. I'd sneak out at 3 a.m. just to walk unseen and open my eyes to cars and trees and houses turned numinous by night. Now I live a short walk away from mountains whose size still shocks me, mountains whose native chaparral and woodlands are mostly permitted to ramble as they will over hundreds of thousands of acres of National Forest. To face the vast, wild world, all I have to do is take that short walk. But sometimes after a busy day has folded my senses and zipped them up tight, I step outside to stretch, and there it is, claiming my street: the night.

The street crosses over a dry ditch, and a fence guards each side of the bridge. Atop one fence, sixteen mailboxes perch. Some sit length to length against their neighbors, others demand two inches on each side. One oversized door hangs open; upside-down, I read "U.S. Mail." Beyond the row of mailboxes, a long stretch of lawn has been mown open to the moon. I walk.

Here is a front yard floored with dirt. Against the street stands its wooden fence, first providing a small horse corral's front boundary, then extending uselessly across the yard. The fence's red and green boards are cracked by far too many nails. Wire fencing of three kinds supplements the boards, but its gaps are as prominent as the boundary itself. In the yard beside the corral, flipflops lie where they were slipped off, lawn chairs hold piles of disposable water bottles and rain-brittle magazines, a dusty rocking horse sleeps on its side, and assorted garbage cans loll. A distant rooster tries to summon the dawn, and behind the house, another rooster just squeaks in response.

This looks like a poor family's yard on the outskirts of a Riverside County town. No house this close to L.A. is cheap, though, and neither is a horse. Probably the residents have been attending to matters more pressing than their neighbors' opinions. But here is the image, bold and present; here is the porch-lit yard. Feeling like I've peeked inside California's mind, I walk on.

The street begins to twist up a steep hill. I slide my feet into the laced shadows of pines and climb. Unaccustomed to this corkscrew perspective on houses and hedges, I see motion in them all. A tall house too close to the street seems to extend the rise of my body clear to the starred sky. Feet on the road, I keep climbing. Up ahead, a short palm stands backlit by a buzzing fluorescent gate light. The light unspools the tree's shadow down the street to me. Dark and precise, my moonshadow enters the shadow of the palm. I walk up the trunk shadow toward the palm's body, trying to keep my shadow inside the tree's. When I reach the trunk, I stand before it, stroking its scaly armor, the dried stubs of its tough old leaves.

I hear water foaming and flowing. The sound draws me up the hill to a yard of moon-glossed laurels. Between their branches, unlikely colors swim--turquoise, sapphire, indigo. Each color flushes and fades. Tinted lights on an indoor wall? Yes, someone must have equipped an indoor pool or hot tub with tinted bulbs and noisy jets. Beneath the roar, I think I hear voices. Three or four swimmers must be up to their necks in bubbling water, in swishing colors and noise. Making out each other's words must be hard. Submerged in sensation, the swimmers probably don't care; for once they must be feeling enough. Is there really an indoor pool in southern California? Are the lights part of the pool? I tiptoe into the yard and pull a branch aside to see.

Through a glass door I glimpse a young man sleeping on a couch, clasping a blanket to his chest. There is no pool. I hurry back to the street, recalling the scene: a TV's colors flowing over the man's face and flowing, too, over the bare walls of a room whose few pieces of furniture look like hand-me-downs from a den redecorated by professionals. The source of all the splutter and gush hides somewhere behind the bushes. My illusion seemed plausible--I only thought that the son of a preoccupied wealthy couple had fallen under the spell of his own pool. Instead he is asleep. May he dream of a room plunged in blue.

I don't want to be a fly on any bedroom wall. I came out tonight to see these houses in their setting of darkness, to see them from the street. I came to see the way darkness alters houses, the way it makes them strange. I came to read the messages painted on the street's surface: stark, enormous orders like "AHEAD STOP" and, here before me, a hand-scrawled enigma--arrows nestling the letters "USA." I came to see cars like the one parked in front of me, slumped toward the curb and seeming to sigh, accustomed to disappointment. I came to see, by another car's blinking blue security light. Hello Kitty's persimmon-wide face spring out from a seatcover, then spring again. I came to see houses, yes, but not to examine their every daylit detail or flood light over their inhabitants. So why did I sneak past the veiling laurels? Why did I try to see that swimming pool plain?

I continue up the street. Box elder branches stream back the way I came. They comb the moonlight with strong fingers, and light catches in the webbing between them. Faint stars seem to wet their leaves. I walk, and the yards close against me on both sides: a stucco or adobe wall rises to my left, a shrub wall to my right. Climbing the moon-bright corridor, I wonder what rooms will open ahead.

This must be an artist's house. The small car in its driveway lacks hubcaps and a passenger-side mirror, but from its rearview mirror, a glass star hangs. The old wall enclosing the side yard feels and smells like California mud, and stream-rounded stones are piled atop it. A tire swing hangs from the front yard's sturdy cedar. By some dim nightlight I see that the kitchen window is crowded with fading glasses of pale red, wine-bottle green, amber and purple. Instead of trapping light, the glasses seem to admit air to a congested room. Over the next room's dark window, a thin screen is tacked directly to the house. It hints at some image I can't quite uncover, a northerner's image of the tropics, perhaps, a place where netting would do more good than walls.

Is this your house, dear reader? I came out late so I could have the streets to myself. When I'm out looking for dream images and a stranger addresses me, I busy my tongue finding ways to pretend that I too am a jaded homeowner, familiar and forgettable, neither predator nor prey. It's easy enough for a white woman. But what if you disarmed me? What if you handed me a cup of cider, sat down, and patted the curb for me to sit and admire your window with you? Would I talk too much, or would I let the night flow around every island sentence? Sitting together, could we keep dreaming, or would we blab ourselves awake?

The street flattens out on top of the hill. A sprinkler stops and night fills the silence. I've passed many trees too hard to identify by moonlight's monochrome, but this must be a coast live oak. Its canopy hangs over the street and cups my head with all the strength of a parent's big hand. I stand still, receiving its blessing. A skunk comes wobbling out from a yard. Raising its bright tail just in case I'm looking for dinner, it rocks along right past me and crashes off into some bushes. I step from the oak's shelter to the open night and walk.

I come to a house of warm red wood, its living room lit and its front door open. I hear a man's muted voice inside the house, talking, talking, as if on a phone. It's at least two in the morning. The wooden door leans open in invitation. I feel its tug, as if it lay downhill, as if I might tumble through it. I back across the street. From this distance, I behold the possibility, the open door. I know it only seems to beckon. If the man really did hang up the phone and ask me in, I'd be gazing back out that doorway as soon as my eyes adjusted to his living room's practical lighting and the nearness of its walls. Still the unknown room tugs me. I walk on.

An owl hoots in the distance and his mate responds. Their voices sound like the deep and hollow night. Both sides of the street are lush with shrubs and trees, and a thick ironbark drapes the street in shaggy shadow. Stepping from the shadow back to full moonlight, I hear a sprinkler steadily showering a backyard. I stop to listen and breathe. It's May, but the sprinkler is spreading the scent of a leafpile through the night.

I pass between wide lawns. On the lawn to my right stands a transparent house, apparently empty of furniture and residents. I can easily see through one of its glass walls and out the adjacent wall to city lights below. The lawn stretches out from the house, out along the hill's flat top. Three young trees, deliberately spaced but stemmy as weeds, stand at the far edge of the open yard. On the lawn to my left, another small tree sets off the orange double doors of a concrete house. The tree's thin branches wave, their shadows wave over the heavy doors, a potted spider plant sways with the branch that supports it, a sedan sits unruffled on the pale driveway.

I follow the street as it begins its long arc back down the hill. I follow it alongside a row of skyscraper-narrow cypresses. High above the evenly graded hill, the treetops form a staircase. I pass the cypresses and there it is: dark with shrubs and pale with rock, the mountain front. With more than seven billion people on the planet, it's hard to look around without embarrassing someone. As long as I've lived here, the mountains have welcomed my gaze. Tonight, though, I haven't missed the mountains.

In the valley of houses below me, one glass-walled room looks unreal. Posing there are a couch, a floor lamp, and a box fan, each holding its space. The couch sits aligned with the glass wall, looking rectangular and unyielding. The lamp's white glow backlights the fan, and the fan flings its shadow forth at the correct angle. You would think the room had been deduced from principles; it looks like an illustration from a computer graphics textbook. A thin figure walks in, kneels on the open floor, checks behind the couch. He foils to find the thing he's looking for; an outdoor light flips on, then two, and I hear clattering. If a real human could age in this rational house, it would be this actor with his clear motivations. Does he have a partner, kids, an elderly mother? When was the last time his shadows merged with theirs?

My steps jerk the stars downhill with me. There goes Cassiopeia, dipping behind a tall pine. I stop and the other stars stop, twinkling around the tree's edge. Lifting my eyes, I see that in fact two pines have joined in a dense, shapeless mat of black needles. Their fur looks soft against the vast and moon-blue sky, and crickets sing from them.

I'm starting to cling to my cuffs and hug my chest. I want to stay out on these streets of dream images, maybe progress through a dream's story, maybe even reach some conclusion. But it's too late tonight: I'm ready to settle into real sleep. I'd better head home to bed. Tomorrow, though--if I can stay awake tomorrow night, I'll sit on my own dead lawn and face my ramshackle house, its sagging roof, its May Christmas lights, the cluster of palms hissing above it, the raccoon splashing in its bird bath. Night draws me out to dream of strangers' houses. Night can reveal mysteries--in the yard I share with sleeping hummingbirds and even in my house, built to shield its tenants while we rest our eyes.
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Author:Fine, Kelly
Publication:Confrontation
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
Words:2944
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