There are no streetlights lining the roads of our neighborhood. The only light is at the top of the tall pole at each intersection. So when Sam and I step out for our walk a couple of hours after sunset, most of the street is dark, illuminated only by the entranceway lanterns of silent homes and the television and computer screens glowing through the windows. It is our first walk at night, Sam and I, and Sam is wary.
Leslie and I had eaten a late supper and in the late summer the sun falls fast, so there wasn’t much chance of avoiding this night walk. But it is unsettling for Sam. She is uncertain and steps lightly. At the first corner, the sound of a closing garage door, one that would in daylight be virtually unnoticed, rattles her. When headlights from a car toss light across our backs, she flinches.
“It’s okay, girl,” I say, scratching her back.
It may seem odd that Sam has not been walked at night. It’s simple, really. Skunks love our neighborhood. They live in the street drains. When we take Sam out in the backyard before bed to do her business, we keep her on a tight leash away from the tall flowers and bushes along the fence where skunks have been seen toddling by. So Sam is not accustomed to neighborhood walks in the dark and she is uneasy about it, like many of us would be about the things we do not know. For me, however, walking tonight, unlike Sam, is comforting. The musical snap of crickets is in the air; there is the faint smell of wood burning from a backyard fire pit. And beyond the trees in the western sky sits a crescent moon. Beside it is a glowing Jupiter. Mars burns in the south. It’s the kind of night sailors thank the gods for; the kind lovers long for. But for Sam, it is menacing.
Sam is wearing her new leash. It’s a version of the old one, which had frayed from use. It’s been a week of new things. Leslie and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary with a stay in Milwaukee to see a small-venue appearance of S. Carey, one of the forces behind the band Bon Iver. It was our first overnight stay in Milwaukee. My son Graham is now in his first home. He and his fiancé moved two weeks ago and are settling in. My son Casey is arriving from Seattle in a few days to travel with us to Iowa City, his first trip there, to visit his stepsister, Jen. And here we are, Sam and I, on what I believe is our first walk together in the dark.
Walking north, Sam stays close, tentative, unnerved by the sounds around us. She is startled by the hoot of night bird, and alarmed by the beep of someone locking their car door, sounds that would not have troubled her in the light. I wonder now if this night walk is a good idea. I should have walked her before dinner when the sun was lighting our way.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” I whisper. I don’t think she hears my words.
For me, the dark can be a beautiful possession; it is mine alone. Night is an escape, a silencer of the daylight’s disquieting cadence. I think of Thoreau’s love of night walks in the woods. I think of the streets of Paris hours after a late coffee at La Palette. I think of the energy of a soft neon-lit walk on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village or Division Street in Chicago on a weekday evening in winter. And although this walk along a tree-lined suburban street is not quite on the level of those, the sensations are similar. Night, even now and even here, is calming, a place to hide away.
But that is what it is for me. Not for Sam. For her, this night is Halloween after all the kids in their Star Wars costumes have gone home to count their candy. For Sam, night is Sleepy Hollow. It is Wes Craven. It is Stephen King. It is what H.G Wells wrote in War of the Worlds, the “mother of fear and mystery.”
Like Sam, I have had gloomy, even scary nights. Awful recurring nightmares and the time I was lost after midnight on the streets of London was more than unsettling. When I was a kid, I walked through a cemetery after dark on a dare and found myself crying from fear as I ran past the gravestones. And there have been times when my soul and heart were lost in the heaviness of dark days. The evening I had to tell my young children that their mother and I were getting a divorce; the afternoon I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breaths in a nursing home bed; the morning I had a conversation with the emergency room doctor who couldn’t save my sister from alcohol.
Sam and I take our time as we near one of the lighted intersections. Rushing through the dark would only worry her. So we move slowly, Sam lagging just behind on purpose as if remaining one step removed will allow me to protect her. What would she do without me here? I wonder. Would she run to some distant light; would she cower in the bushes? It occurs to me how much she relies on me, on Leslie. Not only here, but always—to feed her, to brush her, to take her to the vet for the medication that soothes her troubled, itchy ears. When I leave the house alone, she watches me from the window as I walk away. Where are you going? Will you be back? And now, she trusts me to guide her through the night. Trusting in and relying on me like those I love—my wife, my children, even though they are grown and on their own. They expect that I will be there, that I will not let them down. It’s natural in matters of the heart, for if we cannot trust and rely, we are failing those we love. So, as insignificant as it may seem, getting Sam through this one night is on me. She depends on it.
At the intersection, I ask Sam to sit. I crouch to her level and rub the back of her ears. Her eyes—big and dark—lock on mine. Still, they are uneasy. Even in the filtered light I see them twitch from one side to the other.
“It’ll be all right,” I say. “I’m here.” Sam licks my hand. “We are almost home. It’s just around the bend and I’m beside you all the way.”
I stand and she does, too, and we walk together. Again, headlights flash across us. Sam stops and turns toward the dual beams. They surely must blind her, creating their own kind of dark. I pat her head and lead her westward around the bend and down the last block home. High above, just beyond the silhouettes of tall trees, is the moon again, hanging in the sky like a Christmas ornament. It seems bigger, brighter than before. And Jupiter is no longer glowing; it is gleaming. And the crickets have traded their unorganized chirp for jazz-like harmony. And as we move closer to home, Sam senses something not easily discernible, a moment of joy, a flash of contentment. She lifts her head to a slight breeze and her pace quickens, not out of fear, it seems to me, but rather out of gratitude for tonight’s companionship. Maybe now, with some small level of faith, she is just a little less frightened of the night. And isn’t that what all of us want.