For a couple of days in early summer – just before they drop their seed, the prairie grass will celebrate by putting on a purple coat to sway in the breeze – and you’ll be reminded to return near sunset, the golden hour, when the air will be cool and the light will be perfect for looking at tall grass, poplars and cottonwoods. Today, there is opportunity to get the dog out and spend some time enjoying the heat. The couple are silent, the air is hazy with moisture – his shirt is off and tucked into his belt to afford the sensation of sun on skin, and the wind is a breath from the south – welcome and cool.
They lose themselves in birdsong and the beauty of the day, he becomes aware of sound – from behind – a bicycle, squeaky chain singing in rhythm. They stop and sit the dog to let the cyclist pass – but he approaches at a fast glide, feet out, braking and asking questions…”friendly?” He stops the bike, leaning forward – extends his hand a little too quickly, the animal shies and barks.
”Daisy!”…the woman admonishes, the dog settles down.
Conversation ensues easily; nice day, good dog, what breed? I had one, your chain needs oil, oh that’s nothing, I like the noise – I have a handful of it, he pulls a ring of a hundred keys from a loose pocket of his pants and shakes them – brass singing in the afternoon air.
While they stand and the cyclist directs his attention to the business of gaining the dog’s trust, the man studies him – takes stock; his face is dirty – a moustache that doesn’t grow at the center but has bars drooping toward his chin at either side. It’s a boy’s moustache, sparse and patchy, blonde except for the dirt – he dresses in browns – clothing, hair, rusted bicycle chain. The irises of his eyes are blue but the whites are a funny grey color and his hands are tanned and aged – too old for his frame. He doesn’t look right at you, but focusses over your shoulder, or looks out from under the brim of his flat-topped baseball cap. It’s disconcerting.
He has a confident demeanor – there is nothing threatening to him – not here – likely not anywhere.
The bike is black and dirty, there is a cable lock – too big for its purpose – probably six feet in length – stranded cable sheathed in a plastic tube and secured at the closed loop with a square lock. The pedals are old, metal, no plastic parts or reflectors, and there are leather toe straps on both – antique – you wouldn’t be able to replace them in kind. The handlebars have grips at the ends and the brake levers are aluminum – oxidized – weary of air and use.
The walker reigns the dog forward with the rope – a pull over her left haunch – she moves away, and the cyclist laughs. The walker says something to break up the conversation in order to move on, and then as the other pedals off, he concentrates on the sounds – the squeak of the rusted chain is foreground, and the keys can be heard in his pocket when the right knee comes up and shakes them.
“He has the dog’s name, and our street.”
“I was thinking exactly the same thing.”
As they walk, a crow flies out from the stand of trees just across the tracks to the north – gliding straight and level – then banking occasionally to show displeasure – it’s being chased by a swallow and it will drop one wing, turn a little and return to course while the swallow dives past its neck, reverses course on a dime and attacks again from a different angle – the crow remains steadfast, unconcerned.
There is a hot summer night coming up with dry lightning and prairie wind.
It’s 3 am – the dog awakens – whimpers at the bedroom door and begs to go out. Two days after the new moon a slice of light is all there is – a centrifugal spectre wandering on its orbit in the darkness.
He waits at the step enjoying the calm air, the warmth of summer at night – the scents and sounds hidden for these secret times. The dog wanders the perimeter fence, slowly.
He hears a distant rhythm, a squeaking noise from the south. The dog is snuffling at the fence and whining. The squeaking is closer now, but it sounds like it’s coming from the middle of the field across from the house. He moves to the front gate, opens it, and walks to the lawn. Flashes of light to the west, near the mountains illuminate the ether with a ghostly staccato stroke, silent warning of some terrible distant turmoil. The night is close-in at his heart, and there is no movement from the street or from the open expanse of wildlands to the south.
He hears a muffled sound from the back and moves toward it, again through the gate. His dog is there in the shadows and at her neck is a dirty hand. There is a muffled voice and a shadow kneeling at the side of the garage.
“Now there’s a good dog, eh Daisy? You like that, right there at the back of your neck, don’t you girl?”
His blue eyes look from out of the darkness.
The man stands in his bare feet and his underwear, vulnerable and embarrassed.
The cyclist seems unperturbed – calm, and looks toward him beckoning with his spare hand, “I have something for you.”
He doesn’t move, stands alone, white skinned and mute. His heart is slowing – too slow, and he feels his breath exhaust – he becomes aware that he’s not breathing in again. The yard is still. He remembers that no matter what, no matter the time of day or night, the leaves on those vines will wobble a bit and set off the motion sensor – a flash and a beacon in the peaceful night. But not now, and he wonders why.
“Do you remember last week when you were sitting outside the store in the car and you lost your breath? Do you remember that feeling? For a moment you thought your heart had failed – you lost breath and drained, remember?”
He is still, not breathing and again aware that breath is not here and he wonders if his heart will start again soon.
“Sometimes people decide to leave.”
Everything stops, his awareness freezes, and he wonders for a moment about the meaning of this statement. He wonders if he is dreaming.
The cyclist stands, leans, hunching one shoulder up, diving his hand into the depth of a bulging pocket to pull out the ring of keys.
It jingles, noisy in the empty night and the man looks around.
The cyclist examines the chain, fingering one, then another, as if counting through the ringed stack. He stops, examines one and as if by conjuring, fingers it into his hand. He holds it up to the night and little lights glint at its toothy facets.
“It’s a beauty,” he holds it up – a tarnished brass key, “this one is for you.”
He hands it toward the standing man, and repeats, “You’re lucky, this one is a beauty.”
He reaches and grasps the key between his thumb and finger and it feels substantial, he is surprised by the weight. Over his shoulder he can hear the dog hacking, rustling by the shrubs.
The cyclist lets it go, nods his head once and mumbles, ‘Sure enough.”
The man closes his eyes, draws breath, relieved – his heart has returned and now feels strong in his chest – just like it did at the store, a week ago. He breathes deeply, again and again, senses the scent of the night, the perfume – the mixed essence of living things on the air. And he hears a rhythmic squeak fade down the alley as the cyclist begins to pedal away.
He opens his eyes, wants to say something, but before he can articulate his thoughts, the cyclist stops, plants his feet and turns for a moment; “You have twenty eight more years. Don’t lose it.”
And then he smiles, his teeth are bright in the blackness of the alleyway, “Have you noticed no one has key-chains anymore? Just plastic things, no more good, solid chains that sing when you pull them out of your pocket. That’s a shame I think. I like the noise. Well, you have a good sleep, alright? I’ve got a ways to go yet.”
He puts his foot back to the pedal and launches again, toward alleys end – where the lights are bright at the exit to the street.