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Short Story - Personal Memoir

The Night-Owls of New Market

“My companion and I, for sometimes I have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of new, or rather an old, order – not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The Chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker – not the Knight, but Walker, Errant.”
-Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’ (1851)

Being born is a funny thing in that you have very little say in the matter. Where you live and grow up is a luck of the draw. You could end up in the frigid mountains or sweltering desert. Maybe it’s a loud and chaotic city? Perhaps it’s a tranquil farm? We all grow up playing in our own sandboxes.

For my friends and I, it was a small historically-preserved town in the exurbs of Maryland. New Market West was hardly new. It had the bare basics of a modern municipality just around the fringes. A suburban neighborhood, a grocery store, a gas station, a school, and even a McDonalds. However, the spine of the place, the main road, was a line of antique shops housed in eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings.

When my family moved there in the late 90's, the town marketed itself as “The Antiques Capital” of the state and there was a population of almost four-hundred people. Typical of the Federal style, everything seemed to be made of brick. Historically, the one-street town was a supply-stop on the wagon trail (now Old National Pike). There were a couple of small backroads, but they didn't merit the title of “street.” Simply, “North Alley” and “South Alley.”

Strict zoning laws prohibited anyone from altering the colonial architecture. The way it looked then was not far off from how it appeared when established in 1793. That is partially for marketing purposes, but partially sincere too. It is the kind of Luddite commitment and stubbornness that felt both stupid and yet undeniably charming. In a world that never stops moving, the idea of a place frozen in time is an enchanting thought.

There were plenty of more developed towns within driving distance. However, in those final carless days of our youth, we may as well have been light years away from everyone else. My friends and I would test that boundary on foot, but it was essentially like living in a strange and isolated time warp.
Maryland's darker hours often anticipated a low-hanging fog. For a good part of our teenage years, my friends and I followed after. Why? We were night-owls. There are different cultures all over the world, but the majority share at least this one commonality - They awaken and become most productive when the sunlight is at its brightest. Also worldwide, though in much smaller numbers, there are those who rise with the moon.

Between midnight and six AM, we always seemed to perk up, like the veil was suddenly lifted from our eyes. We would sneak out of our houses, then meet up for long jaunts through our small town - school nights be damned. These nightly outings aggravated my parents, but to be fair, we stayed out of trouble. There was not much trouble to be had anyway, so they learned to tolerate my after-hours escapades.

I was a very indoorsy kid otherwise. In an effort to get me outdoors and exercising more often, my parents once told me that I had to join a sport. I went for the loophole and picked bowling. Still indoors! So, when they saw my late-night walks become a regular thing, I can imagine my parents just said, "At least, it gets him outside..."

Our town didn't have many street lamps. The moon illuminated things just enough to let us navigate through the streets. Night walks like that seemed more isolating and introspective. When 99.5% of the town is in bed and you can't see more than ten feet in any direction, your thoughts turn inward. And at that age, our minds were always racing. And we had no cell phones. Just each other and the fog.

But how to get outside after dark? I have to date myself here to be true to the scene. I had no computer in my bedroom. I had no personal TV. While I gave my parents a chance to fall into a deep sleep, I would have to entertain myself by listening to the radio on a small stereo, writing in my journal, writing lyrics to songs I would never record, and reading books. When enough time had passed, I glanced out my window to see if Marlon's bedroom light was still on. It was.

Marlon was another child of the night who lived right across the street as it turned out. I first started noticing Marlon because his bedroom window faced mine. In the early morning hours when I was still awake, I would sometimes look out my window and be surprised to find that his bedroom light was also on. We soon became friends and we would take advantage of our insomnia sometimes, by going for walks at night.

I had familiarized myself with my house. I knew the creaky floorboards, the noisy steps in our stairway, the loose handrails, the doors that stuck in their frames, the squeaky hinges, all of those details. I chose my footsteps carefully, stalking down the stairs like a patient cat on the prowl. When I got to the door, I delicately undid the deadbolt, eased open the door, then closed it behind me in my most spy-like manner.

Once outside, I found cover and surveyed my parents' bedroom window to see if they showed any signs of stirring. I checked the neighbors' windows too and saw no lights, save for Marlon's. I half expected a giant spotlight to suddenly shine on me and a siren to start sounding. Then there was always the exhilarating realization that no one was awake and no one cared. Still, I creeped like a bandit across the street to his house. His room was on the second floor, so I fetched a soft piece of mulch from their garden and tossed it lightly at Marlon's window. He poked his head out the window after a moment. A wave and gesture for me to wait followed. Soon after, he tip-toed out his front door..

I was often joined by another local kid whose name was John. He lived on the other end of our neighborhood and it took about five minutes to walk there. His house was a split-level and he could usually be found in the office, which had a window on the back side of the house. So, I'd walk back and spot him through the window. He would be sitting at his computer playing video games, his back to me. It was at this point that I would typically rap hard at his window so that his heart would leap into his throat and he'd almost fall out of his chair with a yelp. He always forgave me, bless his soul.

He would say, “You know, the joke's going to be on you one day 'cause you're going to find me looking at porn.”  

Lastly, there was Sean's house on the farthest end of the neighborhood. To get to him, I weaved through some houses and down a couple streets, then walked through his backyard, right up to his bedroom window. Sometimes, I knocked. Most times, I just opened the window and crawled in. He would of course be awake, playing video games.

Why go for walks at night? Aside from the fact that we had little else to do, going for a stroll can be an activity unto itself. “It's not the destination. It's the journey,” as the saying goes. Sure, we would often trek to the twenty-four-hour convenience store. There, we would grab a drink and snack, but this was not why we went out. It was that rare period of your life where you want to go and have a social life on your own, but can’t yet drive. We never discussed it, but I think we sensed that we got something out of our walks. It was independence, sure, but I sometimes returned from one of our jaunts feeling like I had developed character in some small way.

We would amble from here to there like a merry band of travelers and as we wandered, so did our thoughts. We would talk about a range of subjects. Art, life, love, and the stars above. Sometimes, we said nothing. Sometimes, we even sang.

There were nights when we opted for one of the back roads like North Alley. Less lighting, more fog, and an old cemetery with headstones too worn to read. I remember being in the cemetery once just before dawn. For some reason, I was rollicking around the leaning tombstones, riverdancing like a sleep-deprived idiot.

“You know, that's kind of disrespectful,” said John.

“Yeah, you shouldn't do that,” agreed Sean.  

Shaking his head, Marlon added, “Can't take you anywhere.”  

I stopped dancing, composed myself, and silently asked the dead for forgiveness. That night, I developed a sense of respect for the dead and along with many nights after, I gained a reverence for the past.

I took a photo of Marlon and John at this site for a photography class. The sun had barely begun to rise. When we saw the developed photo later, it surprised us. John and Marlon were partially see-through… a ghostly-looking accidental double exposure. We took it as an apparational warning and I have not danced in a cemetery since. When I said there was no trouble to be had in New Market, that was generally the truth. That said, there were some weird… brouhahas here and there.

It can be invigorating to explore the boundaries of your home, though you do not always know what you are going to find. One time, John and I were walking along a dark country road because we had decided to visit a friend of ours who lived just beyond our usual limits.  I think we were around Old National Pike and Detrick Road, which technically is entering the rural territory of Mt. Airy, the next town over. 

As we walked the unfamiliar road, an indistinct clanking and thumping sound gradually approached us in the darkness. At first it seemed dismissable, but then it kept growing.

“Do you hear that too?” I asked John.

“Yeah… what is that?”

Our hearts started to beat heavily as the sound drew closer. A nervous tickle went through my limbs as I got the feeling that we were not alone. We both half-laughed, perplexed as to what it could be. We  stopped and looked in the direction of the noise.

The sound, within 15 feet of us, came to a stop as well. When our eyes adjusted to the thick blackness, we found ourselves faced with the surreal sight of twenty wide-eyed cows staring back at us. All that separated us was a simple electric fence.

“Oh my god,” John managed with a gulp.

 I added a helpful “Ummm…”

When we started to walk again, the cows followed in unison. They stayed in step beside us and when we stopped, eighty hooves came to a halt. It was an unnerving introduction to cattle behavior, but we survived.

Later research informed me that cows behave much like big dogs. They are curious and will follow you if they are interested. It can also be a sign of affection. They might moo at you in happiness or fear. They might travel together or alone. When they are irritated, you will see kicking, tail-flicking, snorting, and stamping. Looking back, I am guessing our particular cows were just tagging along because we were the only sign of people at that hour.

On another jaunt, John and I almost found ourselves confronted with trouble again. We had grabbed a dozen fresh-baked glazed donuts and a handle of cream soda at the grocery store. It was maybe three A.M. and we headed back to his dad's house. We strolled along a tranquil bend of Old National Pike when a cop car suddenly emerged alongside us, seemingly out of nowhere. The vehicle pulled over in front of us, its red-and-blue's flashing on.

An officer quickly stepped out and shined a flashlight in my eyes.

“What are you kids doing out here?” he asked. To this, I'm sure we replied with a teenage twinkle in our eyes and a shrug in our shoulders: “Walking!”

“What's in that bottle?” he asked, gesturing at the bottle in my hand. I looked down at the big brown bottle of amber liquid and thought, fair enough.

“Cream soda, officer,” I said. “You can smell it if you don't believe me.”

His attention turned to the plastic grocery bag in John's hands.

“What's in that bag?” he asked and a smile lit up across John's face. He offered the bag to the officer.

“They're donuts, officer! Would you like one?”   

His tone was unmistakably polite – but was that a twinkle still in his eye? I bit my lower lip to conceal a grin. The cop declined the offer.

“Nah, I don't eat the things,” he said, then pointed out as though John was testing him, “They aren't good for you.”

The cop asked us to stay put - so he could call for backup. John and I exchanged glances. 

Another officer quickly arrived “on the scene!” The two of them talked a minute, then approached us and with their powers combined, they stated that we could not be out and about at this hour.
“Is there a curfew?” John inquired, genuinely curious.

“Well, no...,” one of the officers said. “But we can't just let you walk around at this hour.”

Their tone said it was not up for debate. They asked John for his dad's phone number and made the call. I slightly overheard the conversation. The cops explained to his half-awake father that they had found us out walking. His dad asked if we had done something wrong. We had not.
“Well, then why are you calling me?”

He was only pissed that they had woken him up.

In the end, the cops drove our criminal asses back to John's house – in the back of separate cars of course. During the ride, I chatted up the officer. Turned out, he was the coach of the women's soccer team at our school. Nice enough guy, though I am happy to report that I never saw him again.

A lot of our walks were uneventful and yet when I look back, it feels as though they were something of a special event in my life. It only ended because my family left. We all left eventually. Sean to Minnesota. Marlon to Baltimore. John towards Pennsylvania. I left as a teenager when my family moved to Midwestern suburbia in Kansas. 

I complained about how new all the buildings were and how everything was artificially landscaped. In my eyes, my surroundings suddenly looked plastic. There was no “gravity” to the place, I would tell people. New Market provided a layer of time over everything like dust. When I left, it felt like a sound had suddenly gone missing from the room. Our feet knew every step of that town and in a place like that, everywhere you stepped was the ground beneath the feet of generations. Stories were everywhere and if you go there,  you may sense this one as well.

Now, my friends and I have all been pulled along the map by the passing years. Regardless, there was a moment when we were inseparable and reigned over the small kingdom of New Market West whenever the sun went down. May you and yours reign over your kingdoms as well. Go on your journeys and report back to me. If you get into trouble, that is on you. Be smart. I wish you the best. Carpe noctem!


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