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Nightcrawlers

Nightcrawlers

 

In my mid-teens, I would sleep outside on summer nights. I would do this because I had a nature thing. I did this because I loved stargazing. But mainly I did this because it made stealing away in the night easier. My parents trusted the Boy Scout me, and in my adolescent jaws I seized this lapse in their judgment and ravaged it.

The best method for an undetected departure was to sleep in the front yard, obviating the need for fence-hopping and setting off neighborhood dogs. I would build up the effigy of my sleeping self with down jackets and garden boots stuffed evenly in my mummy bag. I would wear moccasins—literal moccasins—for the actual walking away, my footfalls as deft as those of a Sheepeater. I would bring out my travel alarm clock in the rare event that I actually fell asleep. 2:30 AM was always the chosen time, the moment of truth.

I would usually have a plan on these nights. Walk up to Stoon’s or Butch’s house, rouse them, then off to vandalize, off to meet girls. Sometimes I would just walk the streets at night as an acting witness to the foreignness, the strange moral inversion of your hometown well past midnight, an inversion that you were part of, anointed as an acolyte of this otherworld, right there in those familiar streets. But the best nights, the ones that I keep close to me and will take when I go, were nights sneaking down to Angie’s house, two blocks straight down my street.

Walking to Angie’s in the predawn hours, I always felt like my legs were carrying me faster than they should, like I was careening forward into a thrilling darkness. I walked the blacktop of a shadowy road bereft of lamplights. Automated sprinklers popped and hissed along the route, gurgling out their work in the witching hours, wafting freezing spindrift mists over me as I moved downstreet, sick with anticipation. Waterlogged night crawlers lay sodden and torpid along the sidewalks, glistening in starlight. Elongated beyond the point of reason, the worms creepingly negotiated the margin of life and death. This went on all night, every night: subterranean things emerging, drowning, eating each other, getting crushed and obliterated. And the godfearing slept the sleep of the just.

Cars were rare. The wind was not. Percussive tremble of aspen leaves, hissing sway of a weeping birch. Our town, hefted on a mantle of basalt a mile high up in the air of the Snake River Valley glowed with a stygian and windy lunar iridescence, countless stars winking down on you, locking you in their panoptic gaze. The thermal updrafts generated from the high desert at daytime would come alive, fighting against the onset of the cold, thrashing the trees and barley fields until dawn. I’ve never felt nights so spectral, so alien, yet so brimming with desire.

En route to Angie’s, I would pocket a handful of gravel from the shrub beds of the Garner’s house. I would pocket these and move on. Continuing downhill, I would eventually see her place. She lived in a tall, sturdy looking craftsman-era bungalow. Just she and her mom, Bev, an RN at the county hospital. Her room was an attic room, right up against the sky. Her window stood above the driveway where her mom’s car was parked. Deftly, I would approach the house with smooth, moccasined steps, crouching at the car, a LeBaron or something. One at a time, the pieces of gravel, lofted up to her window, would signal my arrival.

Lob…TICK!

Me, cringing. Checking my flank. Astounded by the volume of these tiny stones on glass.

Lob…TICK!

Reckless now, still terrified. Barb slept heavy, I’d been told, but each stone a howitzer.

Lob…TICK!

Loudest yet, body tensed, ready for a mad sprint through the vacant lot behind. Ready for both fight and flight. Ready for exodus.

And now. And now, just now with the last stone. And just now, as if it is now, I see from my spot crouched by the shit Chrysler, in the cold wind of the high desert plain, I see the smallest light turn on. I see a glow so faint yet so vital, a light but not much more. I hear the faint scrape of Angie’s ancient window sliding open. In the light of stars and moon, I see Angie looking down at me by the car. She grins broadly, then covers her mouth to stifle a laugh. Every time, it’s this way. It’s this enthusiasm, this absolute commitment to life, this unaffected joy that magnetically pulls me down the street at these hours. Just to be in the presence of someone so full of unfeigned interest. The rarest commodity in the mid 90s.

Angie would always risk hissing some needless salutation through the dark, Fancy meeting you here. Always something ridiculous, trying not to laugh out loud as she did it.

And I would wait. Crouched there, I would wait and listen for the movement of the massive oak door. And soon enough, she was there. She always came right up to me, at that point unafraid of making noise, and would lock me into a tight and true hug, her body still warm from her bed, her body brimming with a ferocious energy and eagerness, the smell of her jet black hair consuming and enfolding me. I loved the joy in her heart and hands. I might have loved her in other ways, but feared risking the grace of her presence with my ham-fisted overtures. We shared some unexplained resonance. She had seen a lot, but was unaffected. No one had ever met anyone like her.

We would walk the streets for hours, wondering aloud at the occasional pulse of cobalt television glow blanketing the windows of some homes at 3AM. We would walk a half mile to the local thrift store and sift through the piles of donations stacked up outside, delivered after hours. We’d take whatever we wanted, scrawling cryptic letters to let the staff know we had been plundering. We once found a pair of enormous candles shaped like Corinthian pillars. Angie suggested we each take one to light them in unison when one of us needed extra help. I never knew what she meant by “help,” but I knew that it was a good idea. One night, I showed up at Angie’s with a ratchet set, and we set about removing street signs from anywhere we could find them. STOP and YIELD. CHILDREN AT PLAY. 55MPH. We’d hide them away in bushes and vacant lots, awaiting a time when, with a car, we could safely secret them into Angie’s bedroom.

At the end of our wanderings, Angie and I would find plush grass somewhere sheltered from the wind and lay on our backs. With the vast array of the pearloid cosmos throbbing its attenuated glory out before us, we’d talk the usual talk of people our age, topics of assumed gravity. We’d also talk about ourselves. She was named after the Rolling Stones’ song. I had recurring dreams about crows. She was certain that playing ABBA’s “The Piper” backward revealed satanic subtexts. I was convinced that once, from behind my drum kit, I had seen soundwaves during a live musical performance, in the flow. We’d hold each other close for warmth and we’d talk, like this, until the sky began to take on a wan tone and the real cold began to set in.

I never really knew what happened to our time together. At the end of one summer, autumn and a long Idaho winter intervened between us. School came, Angie fell in with a college guy from Montana named Craig—a low level thug who rode a sputtering Kawasaki enduro around town. We just got on different tracks. Around that time, I had heard that she skipped town to avoid some cops, bummed around southern California. I know now that she’s married to a doctor in the Midwest, has a couple sons, taught dance. I know whatever she is doing, she is doing it full, with intense presence.

Decades later, my friend bought a house right across the street from Angie and Barb’s old place. I’m in town visiting my folks, and my friend and I are on his porch talking. He’s in a rocker, I’m leaning against the wall. It’s late, after midnight, crickets beginning to sing, a dog in the distance. I’m gazing across the street to the driveway on the side of that old heap of a bungalow. And I’m no longer in the moment. I’m seeing myself aside a LeBaron. I’m seeing myself radiant with need. My friend and I have finished talking. He asks if I want a ride to my folks. I tell him no thanks, I’d prefer the walk. We part ways, him inside, and me down his porch and out into the street.

With a thoughtful pace, I cross the road. I stand for the briefest moment in front of that house and gaze up at the window. That high plains night wind comes down the hill, swaying the switches of the willow in the yard, the Russian olive hissing in the back. The sameness so thick, the absence so complete. The universe notices this old situation, the old discourse, and my desire again to play it out. It recognizes, but it’s a check the universe can’t cash.

She is gone. Those nights: gone. Irrecoverable and shunted away into the garden rows of past occurrence, mental objects for delectation and dreamscape patronage, but lost as concrete actuality, a truth that even now bends my heart downward with a heady sorrow. But they happened. Our orbits, at one time, so astoundingly close. It was distance. But it was no distance. I was there, in that place. Mere feet from her: her, waiting in bed, listening for me outside; me, outside, trembling and unmade by excitement. It was a distance marked by increments of untellable desire floating through the night’s cold summer air.

It was the same desire wrung out on those black streets, same roads I once tread with friends now long gone, where we talked about god and sex under those same long looking stars, reckoning all with eternal and polar indifference. The same wind worked through those nights and others, nights of trick and treat, nights running from home streaked with tears, nights setting fire to what wasn’t ours, nights spilling my mouth blood on the pavement, large men hovering above me. Those streets saw all these things. But the one withholding I would eagerly bleed for again is to just see Angie and I, holding close to each other as the wind and the world ran downhill past us, returning the gaze upward and outward, moving beyond the lights of that small town, now distant, underneath the pull of some dark, buzzing energy never fully accounted for.


Joe Griffin's creative work has been featured in publications including Terrain, JuxtaProse, and The New Union. He lives in Idaho, where he is a professor of rhetoric and composition. When he's not teaching, grading, or spending time with his family, he is most likely falling into a river in the intermountain west.