Before darkness envelops, there is time for one more pass. I have to go long, of course. The ball spirals above as I race to catch it before it hits the ground. My arms are outstretched and the ball smacks against them, bounces up, hits my chest and then cradles into my arms. I caress the ball while finishing my run as if crossing into the end zone. I pretend that the stadium is roaring in excitement in celebration of my touchdown. I hold the ball aloft.
Street lights are coming on. Houses are glowing and warm inside. Children race indoors. Mothers get out of cars and carry groceries to the front door while fumbling for keys. Fathers are met at other doors by happy children already shouting news about their day.
Winded from my last catch and, I shuffle over to my friend, Mark, who holds out my sweatshirt. The wind is picking up a little and as darkness takes over the temperature seems to have dropped ten degrees. Mark and I have been pals since first grade. We know each others dreams and personal preferences and parents and siblings and teachers and birthdays and quirky habits and goals. We have had crushes on some of the same girls. But never competed for one.
Smoke curls out of some chimneys. Everyone seems to be cooking. Dark houses look cold and empty and sad. There aren’t many. Rakes and piles of leaves are left on many front yards. TVs flicker. Windows are being closed.
We head home. Mark lives across the street from me. We talk about the weekend, about homework and of course about girls. Tanya is always a topic of discussion. We’ve known her since junior high. She’s well out of our league and no one knows that better than Tanya herself. She will sometimes flirt with guys like us in an almost cruel, teasing sort of way. But it is still irresistible. We discuss the shortness of the skirt Tanya was wearing today. Meanwhile we toss the football back and forth, even though we are just a few feet apart.
Through lighted windows with curtains open, one can see children scribbling in coloring books or yawning over math homework or glued to cartoons. Men are reading the evening paper and shouting news and questions to women in kitchens. Tables are being set. In some houses music is playing on a radio or record player. And in some houses men cook and in some couples are together in kitchens and in some cocktails are being mixed and in some food is already being served. More lights are going on.
A stray dog approaches and we regard it warily. It stops and sniffs in our direction then hurries along. There is a rustling in some bushes and we speculate whether it is a mouse. A police car speeds past with its siren blaring. We stop to watch it fade in the distance and then discuss what time we'll leave for the football game Saturday. A school chum speeds by on a bike and offers a salty salutation. His name is Schuyler and he’s always been a precocious cusser. We are neither of us averse to employing profanity, but aren’t yet comfortable with it proliferating our speech.
Cars drive anxiously as if everyone driving is desperate to be somewhere else. There is a desperation to finally be at home or the store or whatever assignation one is heading to. This is not the hour for leisurely drives. But people drive carefully too. There is an urgency to safety as night takes over the city.
We are still a few blocks from home and I feel a longing to be in the house. Though several years into my teens there is still the child in me, one who is afraid of being out after dark on a weeknight when it is getting cold and others are at home. I felt left out not being in my house. Were I not with Mark I’d run home, but there is comfort to be taken in being with and old friend -- anyway I wouldn’t want to betray my fear. Stopping for a red light we speculate about what our mothers are preparing for dinner. Hunger is starting to gnaw at our bellies.
Many families are watching the national news broadcasts on their TVs. There are images of war from far away where Americans are dying. There are images too from this country where many are protesting that war. Some watch the news in silence. Others comment or discuss or argue with the voices on TV. The president is shown, he looks particularly grim. There are commercials and many sing or hum along with jingles.
Mark reaches his house first. He flips the football to me one last time and we part. There are no cars coming so I dash across the street then walk the last few yards to my front door. Before I can produce my house key I am surprised by my brother opening the door. He has made a surprise visit from college. My dad asks gruffly why I’m so late but he clearly isn’t upset with me, there's affection in his voice as he calls me "sonny boy." My mom says “hidee ho.” I sat down on my favorite spot on the sofa. I finally drop the football.