Night moves at a different pace than the day, not slower or faster, but wider, or narrower, I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s as if each night takes long enough to reveal whatever it has to reveal. It’s the way the dark can feel infinite and claustrophobic at the same time, its endlessness pressing down on you.
I rise in the dark. Out here, in the country, beyond the town limits, there are no streetlights. I put my uniform on and join the rest of the people working in the night, people baking bread, occupying toll booths, lifting and lowering gates, driving 18 wheelers on the interstate. We wake and we work for those who are sleeping. Our real job is to be unnoticed, to get our work done without disturbing them while they sleep, so they wake up refreshed and well rested, with their morning papers on their doorstep and their freight delivered.
Tonight when I start my rounds, before I make it into town, it’s cloudy and black and still. It’s still March, too early for the summer chorus of crickets, and there is no moon for the coyotes to yip and yap at. You’d think that by now I’d be used to nights like this, but I still feel apprehension as I make my way past the silent fields and woods and farms and into the lighted streets of town.
On the west side, my first stop is Bob’s rental. The gates to the wire fence that encloses the yard are chained and padlocked, and the door to the store is locked and secure. Bob is an ornery and cranky old fart, but I like him. Before I took the night shift, he’d been hit three times in four months.
Then I patrol the neighborhood near the elementary school. There is the occasional porch or yard light left on. I pass where Jack lives. Tonight they remembered to shut the garage door, I don’t know how many times he’s left it open. I’ve told him over and over, you may as well be extending a written invitation to criminals, just because you haven’t been hit yet doesn’t mean you’re not going to be. I shouldn’t waste my time or breath, though, because he just doesn’t listen. I may as well talk to the wall.
After I check out the school and the auto parts store and the junkyard, I make my way down Main Street. It’s after two now, all the bars are closed. At the furniture store they forgot to turn off the lights again, I don’t know who they have closing but it’s the third time in the past week. I make a note of it in my log.
At about three thirty I check out the lumber yard. I stop on the west side of the wire chain link fence that surrounds it and pour a cup of coffee from my thermos and pull the roast beef and cheese sandwich from the brown paper bag. I take a sip and from the corner of my eye, I detect movement, shifting shadows, from the stacks of treated four by fours in the middle of the yard. I walk over to check it out, moving in and out of the yard lights, and as I approach the four by fours, I sense movement behind me, and as I turn I see more movement, the dark trace of shadows shifting and dissolving on the black pavement. I finger the butt of my piece in its holster. Then I think I hear something, and I pivot, and behind me, on a stack of two by fours, I see a splash of blood, and a feeling something like déjà vu and something like dread overwhelms me, until I realize it isn’t blood at all but the red dash of lettering they stamp on the ends of each board. Then I hear a crash of something falling over from the north side of the yard. I draw my revolver and put a stack of two by fours between me and where I heard the sound come from, and I can hear the rustle of something moving, it’s only about 10 yards from me, and I pull the hammer back on my revolver and step out of the shadows into the light. “Halt!” I yell, my pistol cocked and aimed at the bundle of meshed gardening fence that had been knocked over, and then I see movement, this time three dimensional, not just shadows, and I see two yellow eyes glowing at me from the darkness, and I realize my hardened criminal is a stray cat, and I lower my gun, my heart still pounding, sweat on my brow. I am relieved and I try to laugh it off, but then my eyes detect another splash of blood, this one the red stamps on a stack of two by sixes, and I know it is nothing but red ink, but I have difficulty processing that, I can’t get the image of blood splashed and stained across a stack of fresh lumber out of my mind.
It’s four thirty as I leave the lumber yard, and I have one last stop to finish my rounds. It’s on the southern outskirts of town, on a dead end street. As I approach, the two story house is dark. I check out the perimeter, the yard, the tool shed, the garage, and then I check the doors. They are all locked, the windows are all shut. I silently enter. I make my way up the stairs. It’s a big house for her, with her children all grown now, to live in alone. She is in bed, lying on her side like she always did with one leg under the covers and one sticking out. My eyes are used to the dark, and I can tell she is wearing a blue t-shirt, her brown hair spread out across her pillow. She is breathing, soft and rhythmically. Her eyes are closed, and she looks so calm and content and peaceful. I want so badly to lean over and touch her, to kiss her on the cheek, but I can’t, she’d be afraid, she wouldn’t understand, that I still love her, that I’ll always love her, and that I could never hurt her, and even though we aren’t together anymore, I will still look out for her, I will protect her. It’s what I do.
The clock radio on the headboard says it is five fifteen. My shift is over, and the sun will be up in less than an hour. I let myself out and head for home. It’s starting to warm up. The grass is thick with dew, and I can hear the waking sound of the first of the morning songbirds. I’m tired as a faint pink line lights up the eastern horizon. It’s just bright enough for me to make out my name on the stone. I’m home, and it’s time to sleep again.