Elizabeth Browne

A Last Summer, A Slow Dance

Indiana summers brewed solitude; a slow-motion separation of things. Each leaf on each tree fluttered silver-green in evening’s subtle breeze. Crows, wings luminescent black, descended into crisp grass, slicing heat.

        Even people existed as if each step taken was monumental; each word spoken an unexpected contribution. Though neighbors joined for a walk or a chat, their voices dangled in sultry afternoons; their steps smacked echoes from bright sidewalk slabs.

         My last summer there, I lived alone in a turn-of-the-century cottage on a tree-lined street. It was a typical Midwestern house—long and narrow, with a porch on the front. My house was split lengthwise into two apartments. I rented the larger side, which included the front porch.

         I loved that house, its faded slate-blue siding and its moldering wooden doors; the built-in bookcases and the kitchen with the slanted cement floor. I savored the secluded independence it offered me—I’d just ended a long relationship—and grew affectionate instead over the house’s many quirks.

         Huge twisted poplars lined the street, and my porch faced a small playground and park that at one time had been a limestone quarry. Just across Second Street at the farthest edge of the park sat the town’s only hospital.

         Ambulances screamed by nightly, but they were just part of the rhythm of that sheltered place. Coal trains roared through just a block east, and that sound too I welcomed; so close that I could hear the clacking of the wheels over the tracks, over each and every tie. The lonely sound of the train’s horn was my reliable late night companion.

         Dale, my landlord, lived on the other side of the house, but he wasn’t there often. He owned the place, and he visited on occasional weekends, but he traveled most of the time for his job—computer software training—and kept a condo in Chicago.

         Dale was tall and too skinny. It was some months after I rented my apartment before I met him in person, and when I did, his lanky presence on the porch startled me. He was a strange mixture of small-town Indiana and computer geek and creative artist. Dale always looked a bit uncomfortable in his own body, and his lankiness dominated his character. Soft-spoken and unhurried, he showed up at my door whenever he was in town, and I began to believe that he was desperate for company. I worried that he was hitting on me but was so unskilled that he came off as lonely and bumbling.

         But I had misjudged. Dale sought friendship, nothing more. He asked about my studies, told me about plays that he had seen in Chicago. Though he worked long hours answering questions about computers, his secret love was playwriting. He had, before financial desperation forced him into computer software, directed numerous local theater productions.

         Dale was probably in his 40s—nearly twice my age—but we began to spend quite a bit of time together that summer. A long travel schedule had come to an end, and he spent as much time in at the house as he could. I would push aside my curtains in the morning and there he’d be, carefully planting rows of petunias in shades of magenta and violet. Sometimes I’d venture out barefoot, head foggy from working on the computer, and help him, warm earth and tangled roots between our fingers. He quizzed me about my writing and sent me back inside fresh with ideas.

         Once Dale enlisted me to help him pick out new carpet for the apartments. We drove from carpet store to carpet store, laughing at the seriousness of the shag salespeople and all of their terminology. Heat swooshed through open car windows. We returned home covered in itchy carpet lint.

         Most often, though, Dale and I sat pensive and slow on the porch, watching summer storms blow by and noticing how the cool air flipped the leaves white.

         Dale knew everyone who walked past, and their dogs, too. He would get up from my rickety porch chair and greet each poodle or terrier by name on the sidewalk, then shake hands with the dogs’ owners.

         Indiana still held some mystique for me, then. While others my age congregated in cities, meeting in fashionable bars and clubs, I isolated myself in a small college town, a place where fashion was constant, and the bars offered only alcohol—except on Sundays. While my friends became successful in New York and Washington, I swallowed Indiana’s slowness. I absorbed simple conversations with the man in the corner grocery. I met my neighbors and their dogs. I watched nature’s subtle changes.

         Dale watched too, split as he was between the pace of our rural town and his busy career in Chicago. He returned, I think, just to remind himself to slow down, to take things in.

         One clear evening, Dale knocked on my screen door.

         “Come out here for a little bit,” he said. “I want to show you something. It’s just about time.”

         And so I followed his long steps, across the park to the busy street that ran in front of the hospital. While we waited for a break in the traffic, Dale scanned the sky.

         We jogged safely to the other side of the street and cut through one of the outer parking lots that surrounded the hospital to the west. At the top of a slight incline sat a former elementary school, its limestone façade carved in art deco style.

         Dale motioned that we should sit on a stone wall between the parking lot and the school so that we would get the best view. He kept looking up. Baffled but curious, I followed his gaze. A square chimney ran up one side of the old school, and at the top, a few birds circled widely.

         “Chimney swifts,” Dale said quietly. “Have you ever seen them?

         They return here every night at exactly the same time.”

         I had neither seen nor heard of chimney swifts, and fired off questions. Dale only told me to watch.

         And so it was that we sat steeped in the summer stillness. As light began to slip away, more and more chimney swifts arrived, until a great swarm of chipping birds circled and dove around the limestone pipe. The sky above us was black with their numbers. From a distance, they might have resembled bats, the way they dipped erratically toward the chimney and then away again.

         At first the flock flew counterclockwise some distance away from the old school. They seemed to be vying for position, lining up for a parade or an inspection, chirping and ticking in expectation. But their circle swung inward, surrounding the chimney, closer and closer.

         Dale whispered that the birds waited for a particular swift to lead them into the flue, and a moment later, one swift, his “chip” shrill and repetitive, finally swung away from the galaxy of birds and fell ever so smoothly down into the chimney.

         And with that, the other swifts funneled and dove, one by one. Each had a position. Each knew the choreography.

         A slow and beautiful tornado of birds, swirling downward and into the chimney. Until, at last, three birds remained. Then two, then one.


         Dusk followed. Then night, then the train.

         I left Indiana for good a few months later; joined my friends in the city. I got a good job, met people in fashionable bars, found myself caring about my clothes. I sped up. And Dale, Dale stayed where he was, all stillness and observation, on the porch in my memory.

         Sometimes, even now, my urban pace overwhelms me, and I stroll through the park near my office after work. I take in the smell of evergreen, listen to the squirrels rustle in the brush. A flock of birds might catch my eye, and still, these many years later, if it’s close to sunset and the sky has softened, I wait for that telltale spiral of feathers. I imagine that one bird splitting off from the rest.