At my desk below the open window, a breeze brushes my face, and my inhalation is smothered in a deep-frying odor redolent of meat. Since the wind is out of the north, that smell may waft from Genna Rae’s, the tiny burger takeout a block away. In the next breath of air, the bouquet of clothes dryer softener from next door. A few minutes later, those two scents move on, leaving in their place a hint of rain.
Helicopter descending: Flight for Life heading for the hospital helipad ten blocks south. Sirens to the east: the speed and direction of their passing tells me they’re on York, heading north to I-70, where it seems, many accidents occur. Shouting children: these would be the crew who live in the Section 8 apartments. They are the only free-range children on the block now. Furious yapping of a small dog: Sarah’s little monster two doors down who hates everyone. The large, short-hair St. Bernard next door never barks. He’s a hundred-and-thirty-pound couch potato.
I sat mindfully some days ago to record those sensations of my city neighborhood. Usually, those familiar sounds and smells barely enter my consciousness. Just now, early morning, none of the above. I hear sparrows, the faint sound of an airliner on ascent high overhead, and because it’s August, the steady rush of our evaporative cooler.
Walking the neighborhood in May I was periodically enveloped in the perfume of lindens in bloom, sometimes without realizing I was walking under one, sometimes stopping to seek the source and finding it across the street. That’s long over now, like all the early bloomers; the forsythia, red tulips and purple crocuses, the butter yellow daffodils. In June come the scarlet poppies, done by the first of July, leaving their spikey leaves to slowly brown and shrivel. Irises begin before the poppies and bloom longer. Roses and hollyhocks start in June and if we’re lucky last into October, but not after the Japanese beetles appear, munching through buds before they open.
The last of the daylilies folded early in August. When we bought this old house forty years ago, a clump of the lance-like, flat leaves grew in a shaded corner. I didn’t know what they were. The second summer one bloomed, a surprise. I transplanted them to a sunny location and didn’t have to ask twice: they burst into multiple blooms the next year and the next threatened to take over the garden. I’ve been thinning them ever since, these enduring plants that some black homeowner, probably a woman, planted here. She did so in the 1940s or 1950s when this community was redlined and hence solidly minority. That line ran down the alley behind this house. No black residents east of it. She also had to thin lilies, passed them on to others. I see them around the neighborhood, not yet eliminated by xeriscaping, imagine how they passed from hand to hand, along with homegrown tomatoes.
Now August approaches its end. We’ve had a string of over 90° days and will likely have more. Hollow rumble and hiss of brakes: school bus delivering students out front, although I can’t see that from here. I have the sound of school buses by heart, taught nearly twenty years with that sound opening and ending my day. The school across the street, hushed all summer, revives. And although I’ve been retired thirteen years, for the first week a vestige of old conditioning woke me at five a.m. Five was when I once rose, gathered my graded papers and plans, my essential thermos of coffee, and was out the door by 6:20, often in the pre-dawn dark.
By next week I’ll stop hearing the buses, as I stop hearing sirens and helicopters. Soon, my windows will be sealed against cold, muffling all sounds and scents. I’ll sleep until seven. For several more weeks, I’ll inspect the yard for Japanese beetles, where nothing still blooms but the few hollyhocks and roses that have escaped decimation. I’ll think about thinning those daylilies, those tall orange lilies that were here before I came and will remain after I’m gone, those flowers that bloom for a day and a century. I’ll notice, despite the heat, that the sun is rising later and setting earlier again, that summer is coming to a close.