Things seen on my recent morning runs:
Two bent old women, each holding the leash of a tiny, shaking dog in one hand and a brightly-colored plastic bag of poop in the other, slowly shuffling down the sidewalk towards each other like reflections in a mirror.
A coyote, standing in a grassy divot at the edge of a small park bordered by midcentury ranch homes, vigorously dismantling a furry meadowland creature in open view like the star of its own live-action nature show.
My breath, visible for a split second before vanishing like a whisper; and a patchwork of dew so heavy it looked frosty white, huddled from the sun in shadowy corners and tucked up under the eaves and lacing yellowing leaves that were green only yesterday.
Autumn is coming, did you hear? While cooler weather makes some people excitedly dig out their warmer clothes and liberally coat every edible surface in pumpkin spice, the changing seasons make me think of death. I mean, more so than normal. It’s elegiac, man. Living things rolling down the shutters, closing up shop. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’d venture to guess I’m in the early summer of life but one day I’ll be in my own autumn, provided I live that long. One of the anxiety-ridden thrills of existence is waking up not knowing for sure whether that old 42 bus has it out for you today or not, you dig?
I’m an autumn-lover at heart, but my main beef is that it’s all too fleeting. Autumn sneaks up on you like midnight at a New Year’s Eve party. There you are in a corner enthusiastically sharing a story, waving your arms around and spilling your drink on your dress, when all of a sudden everyone’s screaming and blowing noisemakers and sweeping each other up for serious mouth-kissing and confetti is falling like tiny chipped diamonds on your hair and into your drink and you glance up at the shimmering disco ball in reverence, sending it a wish for this moment to never ever end. And when you glance back down again, a scowling old man whose uniform reads Eddy in a neat red script is sweeping up streamers on the empty dance floor under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lights as some dude with his ascot askew pukes into the punch bowl. BOOM. Party’s over, bitches. You don’t have to go home but you can’t. Stay. Here.
A flash of color, a rush of crisp breeze, and it’s done. By November we’ll all be hunkered down for six months of bare trees and brown everything. Nobody seems to remember autumn’s quick and cruel annual betrayal, but I haven’t forgotten. I’ll never forget.
I’m watching the turning of the seasons in a place that is not my home. We moved into our home at the start of August, and out at the start of September. This wasn’t part of the original plan, but plans changed. Something about we couldn’t live there when there were no operating bathrooms? Still, it would have been helpful to figure that out before we went and laid down money for the rental truck — we could have just stayed in the old apartment all this time.
We are living, for the time being, in a room in a house in Arvada, a sprawling western suburb of Denver. We are closer to the mountains here, which is neat. It’s comforting to glimpse those jaggy peaks out of the windows. The very highest have just received their first dusting of snow; a portent of what’s to come. One day soon that snow’s going to work its way down the hillsides and cover us all.
Since I work remotely I spend most of my time in our hosts’ house staring at their wall decorations and the books on their shelves, collecting hints about their lives. “I think these people are Mennonite,” I whispered to the beau on the phone a few days after we arrived. I was long-distance with him all the way to Texas, where he was traveling for work. “What makes you think that?” he asked.
“Well, they have a bookmark on their desk that says ‘Mennonite Church USA,'” I replied. “And a photo of some family standing outside a barn wearing traditional Mennonite clothes. And a novel named Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.”
I paused. “Also, I overheard them in the kitchen telling the other guests that they’re Mennonite.”
“Hmm. I think it’s too soon to tell,” he said.
Here are some things I never would have known if our lives hadn’t taken a detour through this place: progressive Mennonites can drive cars, wear regular clothes, and work regular jobs. Progressive Mennonites can blare Fleetwood Mac while they fix dinner, and watch football, and own copies of Mad Men DVDs. These Mennonites in particular, though, still don’t curse or drink, so I catch myself saying “gosh” a lot and remorsefully keeping my booze consumption under wraps.
Our hosts are a couple in their 50s with five grown sons. The wife, Karen, has a stylish haircut and a deliberate demeanor and the wearily expectant air of someone who has been entrenched in the public school system for a very long time. I get the feeling that if I’d found myself in her class as an earnest grade-schooler I’d have spent the entire year sitting very still, trying my best to please. In fact, I catch myself doing that now, in the way I tread quietly about the house and strive to leave things cleaner than when I found them.
The husband, John, is a rake-thin man with Coke bottle glasses that make his eyes appear several inches removed from his face. A former pastor, he has the genial easiness of someone who’s shaken the hands of many strangers. He has a serious sweet tooth and is constantly baking, the most recent treat being pumpkin brownies. Sometimes he rises at 3 a.m. just because he can; he never really could shake the Illinois farm boy out of him.
SCENE ONE: One night Karen is late coming home from school, so John offers to share what he’s made for dinner with his guests. The guests are me, an Italian businessman driving a maroon minivan with Florida plates, and the Italian’s Asian-American employee. We rush to help him set the plastic patio table with paper napkins and forks as the Italian pours everyone a glass of water from a pitcher. Dinner is huevos rancheros atop a bed of white rice, browning pear slices, and slightly-dried carrot sticks, which we eat gratefully.
During the meal the Italian fills us in on his plans to expand the business to Brazil and how it’s better living in the south because there’s more money, but the girls are more beautiful in the north, so some men have a practice of keeping a northern girl on the side. Knowing our hosts’ religious background I watch John nervously, but he just laughs.
When we’re all done the Italian spreads his arms wide over the table like a blessing. “Bellissimo,” he says, and grins beatifically. Then we guests rush to put our plates in the dishwasher before our host-dad can, the politest children in the strangest little family.
SCENE TWO: Two of John and Karen’s sons are in a Phish-style jam band, and they’re launching a new record made in collaboration with some rappers. They’ve managed to release it during one of the wettest weeks Colorado has ever seen — a once-in-a-thousand-years “biblical” rain event, the meteorologists are calling it.
With his muddy work boots and damp socks in a pile on the floor next to his outstretched legs, John navigates his laptop browser to YouTube and watches the video for the latest track. Onscreen, someone in a Gumby costume drunkenly gyrates outside a bar with a bunch of bicyclists as the featured rapper delivers slick rhymes peppered with f-bombs.
I listen from the corner of the living room over the sound of rain beating the skylights, anticipating his reaction. But when it’s done he just smiles proudly, and clicks to play it again.
On my most recent run I took an unknown path, trying purposefully to get lost. No looking at a map first to see if there was a clear route. It ended up that there was, and there wasn’t. Twice I thought I’d have to turn around, and twice I pushed on. A hidden trail tucked between the roadway and a chain of farms took me most of the way back, but I had to make a decision to cut along the railroad tracks or risk doubling my already-lengthy run time.
As I comically limped over gravel on the railbed, my shoes soaked cold with dew, I felt a rush of euphoria that comes from doing something different and uncomfortable and somehow still enjoying the experience. We each only get so many moments in this lifetime, so what’s the point of the next looking the same as all the ones that came before?
I’m a little dispirited to be away from my new home right now. I feel as though I’m missing out on the fleeting autumn that’s happening there. That somewhere between the stifling heat of summer and the dead cold of winter I’ll be left with a gaping, aching hole.
But I’ve somehow managed to find myself here, elsewhere, both literally and figuratively. The needle jumped and skipped to different song, but the record kept playing all the same.
I’m surprised at how continually surprised I am to find that changes, like seasons, are rarely permanent.