Sleep recedes like waves washing down a beach, and slowly I begin to wake from the deep fathoms of slumber. 3am. I rise in my nightly ritual of stumbling to the bathroom, arms extended like curb feelers, and make my way through the obstacle course that is our bedroom. I worry that I’ll wake the dogs, but they snore on. It’s even too early for them to want to patrol their yard. Returning to bed, I roll over and sigh. My mind is playing back the scenes of my dreams like a flickering home movie reel and I know there will be no more going back to sleep…
Limbs outstretched like arms, the maples reach into the velvet darkness. It is late on a summer evening, and all of Prospect Avenue is dark. People murmur quietly on the front porches in the late summer swelter. In this pre air conditioned world, the only sound is the quiet breath of the wind and the whirr of window fans. I walk my bike down the gravel driveway towards the yawning mouth of the old barn, wondering as always what might be lurking inside its musty bulk. That’s when I hear it. A sound as natural to our street, as a mother’s heartbeat is to an infant. From 3 houses down, Mr. Carmichael clears his throat.
I look across the back yard and see a single square of yellow burning in the shadow; the light from his den. In all the known world of my 10 year old experience, the Carmichael’s is the only house with a den. The exoticness of a room dedicated only to a father always intrigues me. A haven from floral prints, and doilies, it is a world of hard carved decoys, and cast metal soldiers; books line the shelves, and a walnut stained writing desk holds the tools of his trade. We know that the den is off limits when we play at Peter and Danny’s, but the gravity of the room always pulls us into it.
While most Dad’s carry lunch boxes to work, and wear work clothes when they leave in the morning, Mr. Carmichael wear a coat and tie. He is older than the other Dad’s, and has lived here all his life. His history on our street is measured not in years but in geologic time. The resident historian of Prospect Ave., he knew the little old ladies when they were still young.
While we run and play through their yard like any other, we somehow know that his property is different. A tall man, with a deep voice, and a stern look, fear is the wrong word to describe how the little kids feel about him. It is more like respect and deference we would give to someone from another world.
He sits beneath the light of his desk lamp in his den working through the dark hours of a summer night. Pen and pencil in his hand, he is drawing. A newspaperman by trade, his real profession is that of an artist. Stand in the red, sandstone edifice of the Richmond Library, and you will see his drawings on the walls. They record the history that urban renewal has worked so hard to erase.
In my mind’s eye he is always drawing in his den, pausing to clear his throat, a reassuring sound, like the chirping of crickets in the night. Families have come and gone from Prospect Avenue, our own clan arriving in the late 60’s, and leaving by the early 00’s, but I cannot imagine the street without his presence. The last tie to the original residents, once he was gone, the oral history of the neighborhood was gone with him. If only I had had the courage, and the foresight to sit with him, and ask him to share his stories.
A barn owl hoots in the darkness, and I drop my bike inside the door of the barn, and run back to the safety of the porch. It seems like the world I know is solid, and permanent, but in only a few years it will all begin to fade away. Piece by piece, and person by person, the neighborhood will be renewed. The stately maples will slowly succumb to age, and the City’s chain saws, until what is left is a shadow of the place I knew. The houses still stand, and a new history is being written with each passing day, but the world that I knew lives only in the quiet of the night. The images flicker across the canvas of my mind, and are recorded here like drawings of a city that is all but forgotten.