Wednesday, August 19, 2009
When I was thirteen, I spent a summer night in our backyard with three of my school pals, Eddie, Danny, and Craig. We pitched a rugged canvas tent — I don’t remember who it belonged to, but it was nothing like the practical lightweight, synthetic tents you see nowadays. It weighed a ton and smelled like a barn. Light and air were admitted only through the opened flap at the entrance. With the flap closed, suffocation was just a matter of time.
Directly behind the backyard was the garden, with its rows of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. The area was framed by three orange trees, a grapefruit tree, and the clothesline. At dusk, quail roosted in the citrus trees. In the dark, you could hear the garden breathe. Beyond lay the vineyard, the grapes yellowing and sugaring toward autumn.
We had been talking about our upcoming adventure for days. We’d all been camping in the mountains before, but, rumors of Woodstock aside, life was slow enough for us small town and farm kids that anything a bit out of the ordinary was something to be excited about. We prowled the yard well after dark, surprising toads with a flashlight, tapping and peeking in the windows, and laughing our heads off. Finally, my father “suggested” we get some sleep.
We crawled into the tent, found our spots, and closed the flap. Then we opened it. Then we closed it again.
“I don’t want a possum coming in here.”
“What about the dog?”
“She’s all right.”
“Better open it, then.”
At first the tent seemed so black that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed, so I closed them with my fingers to be sure — a bit too tightly, because a strange orange pattern appeared on the insides of my eyelids. When I opened them, the pattern was still there. When it faded, I closed them again.
“I’m seeing things.”
Little by little, the tent filled with the sound of slow, regular breathing. Then there were other sounds: real and imagined footsteps, the rustling of birds, irrigation water running, a tractor in the distance as one of the neighbors sulfured his vineyard, his sulfur machine moaning like a lost spirit.
I can still remember how I felt that night — as if the night itself were a dream. And I remember waking to the sunshine sleep of day, to the sight of my friends’ strangely calm faces and their tousled hair.
“Valley Days” is my newest Notebook entry. Old Notes are archived here.