Afternoon naps are always hard. I’m up at 3 a.m. on Saturdays for my radio work, and when I come home it’s tough to not allow myself time with my head on a pillow. Still, the result is seldom as I would like. The naps, although always needed, are rarely restorative and today my body is rattled and ragged. I don’t like saying this, but I’m feeling my age. When I was younger, naps refueled me. Not much anymore. The cure this late afternoon, I believe, is to force myself to take a walk, even if my body says no.
I put on a loose linen shirt, shorts, and walking shoes, and latch the leash to Sam. It’s a hot day, the kind my father would describe as “close,” as if humid air was closing in on him. Still, I head out toward the village downtown where Sam and I haven’t been in a while. Our home is not actually in this village, we live in Clarendon Hills outside Chicago, the neighboring town, but Westmont is the closest downtown along the train route, only a few streets away. So, for the first time in a long time, Sam and I head west.
After two blocks, I’m sweating and Sam is panting, but we trudge on. Sam, despite the minor distress, appears to want this walk as much as I need it. And when she hears the voice of a young girl in the distance, she seems to forget the humidity and instead embrace being outside. The girl, about 10 years old, is insisting her father toss a softball, anticipating the throw from the corner of a fenced yard, an aluminum bat in her hand. The girl is full of energy, ignoring the oppressive weather. Dad leans on the fence, seemingly unhappy with the heat. He acknowledges us with a nod.
“Come on, Dad,” the girl says as she flips her long wavy hair out of her eyes and behind her back. “I need some practice.” It is then that an old memory returns, those evenings playing catch with my father in the back yard of my boyhood home. It was a long time ago.
The house where the girl plays is a newer home, one of the few recently built among the village’s older cottages and wood frame houses. The landscaping is clean and proper. The home gleams. This is the new Westmont. On our way here, we walked past signs of the old, including a small yellow house, built maybe in the 1940s, with peeling paint and an overgrown wildflower garden, a few shingles missing from its roof.
I hear the slap of the bat against the ball and Sam turns her head to the sound. She watches the ball sail over the fence and into the street and pulls on her leash.
“We can’t lose it!” the girl squeals. “It’s our only one!” She runs toward the ball, her hair tangling in the wind, and snatches it before it makes it to the crest in the street where it would roll quickly away. Sam is locked on this, as if wanting to be certain of the girl’s success. Or maybe, Sam thinks she could be of some help. It’s good to see Sam alert to the girl’s liveliness, and good to hear an animated young voice and the cheerful smack of tennis shoes striking pavement, unmistakable sounds of late summer and youth.
We continue west and at one house on the corner an old man sits silently in a lawn chair, his small black dog chained to a post. The dog sees Sam and charges, violently yapping, its teeth exposed. It lunges, choking itself on the chain. Sam’s ears perk, she stiffens, but she only observes. She doesn’t growl or thrust toward the dog. The old man shouts something but I can’t make it out over the furious barks. The man’s face is red and animated. I can bet this exchange is familiar for both of them.
Walking south on the village’s main street, I notice how all the buildings here seem out of place—two funeral homes only a block apart, an old red brick church that looks like an office building, two woman’s spas, and three art galleries with amateurish, ordinary paintings in the windows. I’ve never seen anyone go in or out of any of these places, even the church. There’s a shabby resale shop across the street where small ceramic horses of various shapes and colors line the windowsill. Mara’s Mediterranean restaurant is open but empty. So is the new sports bar opposite it. A whiskey tavern just up the block, with a new modern interior and upscale menu, was forced to close a few days ago. Rumor is bartenders sold alcohol to underage kids. But Potbelly’s Pub is still open, an old-school bar with high narrow windows along the front and a sign promoting video poker. I’ve never been inside, but today, the front door is propped open. It’s dark in there and along with the odor of stale beer, a man and woman spill to the sidewalk.
“Oh, hi cutie,” the woman says to Sam. “You are darling.”
The woman’s face is puffy and flushed. She’s dressed in a too-tight gray top showing the bulges of her belly. Her dyed red hair is pulled up on top of her head. She wears dark sunglasses.
“What kind of dog?” she asks.
I tell her and she pets Sam’s head and lets her lick her fingers.
“Never heard of that kind,” she says and leans over to scratch Sam’s back. “Oh, you are a beauty.”
The man—wearing black jeans, a gray tee-shirt, and flip-flops—looks up from his cell phone.
“Why is it that all the dogs love the ladies?” he asks.
“Well, she’s showing her some affection,” I say, smiling. “Works every time.”
“They all love the ladies,” he continues, as if he’s not heard my response, and looks again at his phone. “They never pay attention to me,” he adds.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” the woman says, waving at Sam.
I wish them a good afternoon and in my peripheral vision I watch as they stumble along the sidewalk and disappear around the corner. I can’t help think about the alcohol rehab center near the train station just a block away.
Farther down the street, we pass Amber. I see through the window its empty tables draped in white linens. There’s a handwritten sign on the restaurant’s door claiming it is closed for renovations. A year or so ago, Leslie and I ate here on the strength of old reviews. It was forgettable. Across the street is a longstanding Italian restaurant. It seems to do well. We’ve been there several times, but not recently. I look in the window. There’s a single couple at a corner table. Two waiters in white aprons rest their backs against the wall near the entrance to the kitchen. No one is in the bar.
The village feels stuck, as if the old is fighting the new. As if change is not embraced. As if change is unwelcome. Cars pass, the train rumbles by, but what remains is something quiet and sad.
Sam and I cross the street and rest on a bench next to the fountain near Village Hall. Across the way and above us is a brown street sign honoring the Blues great, Muddy Waters. He was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago but later came to Westmont where he lived the last years of his life.
“Look, Sam,” I say. “Did you know this was Muddy Waters Way?”
She appears unimpressed, but she looks anyway. Sam must know that Westmont is holding on to a distant echo.
How many other small towns and villages all over America are holding on? How many tussle each day trying to balance the memories with the future? The past is important, but survival is found in the new. Still, we cling and we resist. They are not unlike us, these towns, with our dusty photo albums, our Sunday dinner traditions, and our decades of family rituals. We are our towns.
This week, my son will close on a new home. He and his fiancé will move out of his mother’s basement where they have lived for over a year to their own place more than 30 miles away. It’s a new beginning. It’s the start of the future. They will grow and prosper and thrive, make their own traditions. They will embrace the change with bold resolve. It will be hard in many ways, but it is good, and it’s the way it should be.
Sam and I take the same route home and this time when we pass the house where the girl had been playing softball, there is now a full-on game. Dad stands with a ball before a young boy and Mom is next to a small tree with her hand on its bark, safe at second. The girl’s foot is on a steppingstone, first base, and her hands are on her knees in the ready position. Dad tosses the ball and the boy smacks a line drive into a strand of bushes at the far end of the yard.
“Run!” the girls screams.
Sam and I have slowed to watch the excitement, happy to be here, happy to have fought off the grogginess of a nap. For even in the heat, even after scenes of a tired town slow to change, there is joy. And again, like before, I think of my father and the backyard catches. I think, too, of the pick-up games with my neighborhood buddies in the empty field in the cemetery near my boyhood home. I think of Wiffle ball in the street when my sons were just boys. These are good memories, part of a past that will always and forever be. But this game, the one Sam and I are witnessing this late afternoon, is the most important of all. Sam knows this, for she, like always, is interested only in the here and now, and eager for what comes next. And I, too, realize this, for the game before us is of this moment alone, happening right now, today, a game born of the many before it, and the only one that will lead to a new game tomorrow.