Summer in Los Angeles can get blacktop jungle hot, with little relief at night. June through August in our neighborhood meant backyard sleepovers several times a month over the summer, usually in the Furby backyard. My mom laid out tarps to keep the dew from soaking our blankets, slumber bags and sleeping bags. Then she brought out huge bowls of popcorn and cups of lemonade before we were too deep into storytelling and trying to gross each other out. Above our heads Orion and the Big Dipper peeked through the Chinese elm’s canopy to where we laid just outside the back door.
There were usually eighteen children of assorted ages munching popcorn while telling each other campfire stories. Each tale growing spookier than the one prior as the sky grew dark and the night older. George, Mike, and I were the oldest at thirteen and we were getting obvious pleasure at telling some really spooky tales. The sky was pretty dark, so I’m judging it was a round 10 o’clock when my father came out the back door with another bowl of popcorn and one hell of a spooky story.
Growing up in the back hills of West Virginia my dad was the youngest of eight children and use to walking long distances to get from one place to another. Remembering back that night, he reckoned he’d been about twelve or thirteen and had been picking beans in the fields on the far side of town, on the opposite side of the valley. It had been a hot dusty summer day, with a mile or so more to walk he realized he was hungry, thirsty, and he was dead tired. The sun was beginning to ease low over the mountaintops; the shadows were growing long across the dusty road when up ahead he could see a boy nearing the bend in the road. The shadows were getting deep, but the closer he got he was certain he recognized him from somewhere.
Unable to lay a name to him, but feeling a familiarity my father picked up his pace in an attempt to catch up with the boy. The faster my father walked, the faster the boy walked. If my father jogged, the boy ahead of him kicked up his heels to a jog without even turning around to see who was chasing him. The heat of the evening and the length of the workday had sapped the energy out of my father, but curiosity made him run to catch up with the boy ahead of him. Then just as the boy reached the bend in the road, he vanished.
Vanished into thin air. My father reached the bend in the road. Nothing. Looking ahead into the dusk, there was no one walking ahead. My dad was alone in the growing night, there was no friend walking with him, no one running ahead to get away. He was alone in the night. No crickets chirped in the ticket. No hoot owl hoo-hoo’d from the pines, his only company was the summer night that lay hot and heavy on the air.
Some of the younger children had fallen asleep on their sleeping bags, popcorn kernels and empty cups were scattered between. The older children sat there hanging on each of my dad’s words, feeling the silent, hot West Virginia night wrap around them from three thousand miles and three decades before. He said it wasn’t until the next day that he discovered it was at that very bend in the road that Daniel Smith had died. Died walking at dusk around the bend on that dirt road when he was hit by a car just two nights before. No one knows who hit Daniel Smith, they just know he walks that same stretch of lonely West Virginia back road, night after night, looking for his way home from the bean fields.
As most of you know my father passed away December 29th at 5:30am this last year. Tonight he would have quietly celebrated his 75 birthday. Happy Birthday dad, I miss you, but you live forever in my heart and memory like those hot summer nights when you would hold the neighborhood children captive with your story telling those four short decades ago.
Pont-Croix, Brittany VIII
23 hours ago