The ritual was almost a secret, though we didn’t start out trying to keep it one. It’s just that we’d found something, moments we knew we’d cherish long before nostalgia and passing time could paint them with fondness. The days simmered our blood and we hid in the confines of the manufactured air. The only outdoor ventures we made in sunlight were to the car and a quick cranking up of the vents. At temperatures crawling well into the triple digits, even the dry heat of Kansas is difficult to swallow. Job schedules had to be adhered to, but outdoor activities not involving cool water caused scrunched noses and small head shakes of disinclination. Sitting on the couch in the air conditioning, standing in front of the fridge pondering its contents, or lounging in the recliner with a good book were the only appealing options for entertainment. My butt was nowhere near the size it would become with age and a lifestyle changing injury to my foot, but I wouldn’t have believed at the time that I wasn’t fat. So fridge gazing was out because pondering food for the sake of viewing is nowhere near as appealing as pondering food for the sake of the tasting, which contributed to a big butt. Sometimes, I’d brave the heat for a little bit to step onto the back steps and play with the dog. I always sort of envied the dog, a black lab named Sebastian, because he would often lie in the grass within the spray radius of a running sprinkler and laying around cooling off in the heat seemed very appealing to me. However, Sebastian was not allowed in the house because of the danger he posed to the carpet, so I would imagine he envied me my chance to lounge in the air conditioning.
Days went by like this, lazy days that blurred together in their inactivity. Oh, the carefree summers spent by youth. We didn’t know how good we had it.
But it was the nights to which we looked forward. The burning sun would creep below the trees, casting rippling shadows ever further down the block, little stabs of fading light twinkling on the pavement. In those moments, I could almost believe the sun was benign, slowly slipping out of sight in an effort to keep us in view as long as possible before succumbing to the roll of the earth. The evenings, when the heat would die just a bit, I felt the sun whispering a mournful goodbye, full of promise for a renewal in the morning. The sun just wanted to be friends, but didn’t know when to back off. Those hot August days were the sun’s attempt to join in the fun, but it was just trying too dang hard, standing too close, talking too loud. We would sit down as a family and have dinner, some nights it was steak and baked potatoes, some nights it was hamburgers and fries. Salads were a big part of our summer meals as were fresh strawberries and sweet corn on the cob. For me, the meat of the entree was often a garnish to the zing in my mouth of a crunchy carrot or buttery burst of corn bitten from the cob. We would languish at the table, talking about our days, grumbling about doing the dishes, discussing upcoming plans. My sister and I often joked about things my parents weren’t in on, bad daytime TV or something funny our neighborhood friend Felicia had done or said.
After dinner and cleanup, sometimes we’d split up, running our errands or visiting our friends. Not every night, but most nights, we’d end up back home around ten, the sun long gone and finally the Kansas wind that was so rude and cloying in the day would calm to a breeze at night that would lift the hair from our necks and cool our damp skin. It was then that the ritual would begin.
We’d steal into our rooms and grab our shoes, lacing up and meeting back in the living room. We’d utter a quick goodbye to Dad in the recliner watching some show on Hitler and my mom, sister and I would hit the pavement. There would be a flashlight in one of our hands, a cursory attempt at safety, but in a sleepy Kansas town, once the sun goes down, so do the residents, and there was very little traffic, foot or otherwise for us to worry about needing to see with a flashlight. It was pretty easy to believe we were the only people in town awake at that hour, let alone out and about. A third of a mile from our house was a park, lush green grass with playground equipment, wide spans of open space for pickup football games, and the reason we were there, a wide and meandering trail around the park’s perimeter dotted with benches and smelling of cedar wood chips used to line the ground near the playground equipment. Three laps around the trail made up a mile and sometimes we’d walk the three laps, sometimes four so that the 1/3 mile trip to the park, the extra lap, and the 1/3 mile trip home equalled another total mile. But we were never that concerned about the length of time we walked. It was always decided with a cursory, “Another lap or home?” What held us captive, had us looking forward to the sinking sun every evening was the company. We’d laugh, talk, dream, discuss, giggle, imagine, and create stories on those walks, the future brighter in those months than at any other time in our lives. The three of us were never as close as we were on those late night walks, where the cricket sounds were audible and even the slightly slower pace of an already slow farm town was a nice chance to breathe in, breathe out.
All too soon, the walks ended, residency changing from home to college dorm, the pace of life picking back up again. But I will never forget the sounds of our feet beating the street to the park, the smell of the neighbor’s magnolia trees, how we rarely had to worry about looking both ways for cars as we crossed the streets on the way to the park, and the comfortable width of the walking path once we got there where the three of us had no trouble walking side by side. I don’t even so much remember what we talked about. I just remember the steady buzz of the streetlights as we rounded those familiar curvy turns, passing by the convenience store we’d frequented as kids for our candy fixes that was across the street from the park, feeling the tick of my muscles as they flexed and contracted trying to keep up with my slightly-longer-legged sister. Mostly I feel the timelessness of moments well spent with those in my life who mean the most to me.
I miss our nighttime walks.