All summer and into the fall, I’ve been taking my daily walk around the Heights near dusk.
Sometimes, I hear the Yacht Club’s cannon booming, announcing sunset; every day it gets a little earlier. Most nights, darkness comes on as I walk.
At the beginning of the summer until mid-August, fireflies lit my way. Usually by the end of June, they extinguish their lights and disappear. Not this year. They add mystery as they light up. My eyes follow them, trying to guess where they’ll appear next. I am never right.
On the Fourth of July, there were fireworks across the water at Greenport, Southold and Mattituck. Standing in the field overlooking the North Ferry, where the Prospect Hotel once stood, I watched dozens of fireflies careening through the darkness, as beautiful as the multi-colored fireworks across the way. The sound of laughter came up the hill towards me as a mother and her three young children chased the lightning bugs, trying catch them in jars. It was almost 10 o’clock and they were wearing their pajamas; their mother probably thought it would make bedtime easier when she got home, though it was sure to be hours before the excited kids would settle down enough to sleep.
It could’ve been 50 years ago when we captured those tiny flashlights in Mason jars in our backyard.
I walked along Bridge Street on an August night and could hear a jazz group playing at the Dory. From where I stood on the bridge overlooking Chase Creek, I couldn’t quite see the musicians, but I could hear their voices loud and clear. The local band, the HooDoo Loungers, with roots in New Orleans, played a funeral dirge, “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Listening to the woman singer’s plaintive voice, I was transported to “old Joe’s barroom, on the corner of the square,” as Big Joe McKennedy shared his sad tale: “I was down to St. James Infirmary/ I saw my baby there/ She was stretched out on a long white table/ So sweet, cool and fair.”
The trumpet wailed, the trombone moaned. I had the perfect front-row seat on the bridge, invisible, listening with every muscle in my body. I felt lucky to be passing by at exactly the right moment. She finished her song and moved on to something livelier as the crowd hooted and hollered. The fragile moment ended; I continued walking towards home, the music trailing behind me across the water.
If the “golden hour” just before sunset is the sweet spot for a photographer, then darkness may be the perfect time for a writer — at least this writer.
My best thoughts amble towards me in the dark. My walk becomes a meditation, a labyrinth in motion around the Heights. Cicadas and crickets provide the soundtrack for my wandering. I am the curious observer. In the lighted windows, families eat their dinner, put their children to bed, smoke a cigarette, drink a glass of wine or watch television, the blue light casting shadows in a dark room. One night, two little boys stood at their bedroom window, goofing around before bed. As they watched me walk past, one boy called out, “Hey, it’s too late for a walk.”
Maybe, but it wasn’t my bedtime.
The best part of my nocturnal walks is the sight of Union Chapel’s stained glass windows, a beacon of sacredness in a prosaic world. I imagine the houses overlooking it bathed in a grace they wouldn’t have otherwise. My photographer’s eye tries to imagine how I would photograph it, what angle would capture its jewel-toned windows. Then I realize that a photograph would only diminish it. Like fireflies, it loses its soul when it becomes two-dimensional.
Though the season is over, I remember the last night of Labor Day weekend. At almost every house, porches that are empty every other month of the year were lit with white fairy lights or candles. People talked quietly or not so, enjoying the last weekend of summer, the cooler air, the melancholy of another summer ending as they head back to their real lives. My real life is here and I feel blessed.
When I return home, the house feels too warm and confining after my escape into the night. The day’s cares are gone, abandoned in the darkness.