Night Owl

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By Sean Dietrich

I’m in a hotel room, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. It’s late, and I’m not tired. My nightstand clock tells me it’s 11 p.m. I think I’ll go for a walk.
Now I’m strolling the dark sidewalks, alone. I pass a man who is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, walking the road, pushing a stroller that is filled with tin cans. I hear them rattling.
He grunts a greeting at me. I wave.
Maybe I will stick very close to my hotel tonight.
I’ve always been a night owl, and this used to rub the adults in my life the wrong way. I come from fundamentalists who don’t believe good things come from nocturnal activities.
As far as they were concerned, night only nurtured evil things like dancing, fighting, carousing mailbox baseball, grand theft auto and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
But since we’re being honest, I’ll admit that as a boy I watched Johnny Carson almost every night in secret. I would sneak downstairs and ignite our television, keeping the volume barely audible.
Johnny’s monologues were the best. The jokes, the gags, the laughs, the interviews. His studio seemed like such a wonderful place to be, and so different from our world.
Of course, I knew I was taking my eternal salvation into my own hands, watching such devilish TV. In my family the only acceptable forms of entertainment were the Lawrence Welk Show, Billy Graham crusades, or watching a washing machine on spin cycle.
The men I come from were morning people. They woke before sunlight, worked hard, sipped coffee all day, and made hour-long conversations about adjusting carburetors.
They burned trash in fifty-gallon drums, ate liver and onions for their birthdays, and went to bed early.
I never fit in with them because I was a night-person. And night-people were not productive, respectable people. Night-people crept downstairs to the television, turned it on in secret, sat cross-legged on the floor, and:
“Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!”
One night, I heard footsteps behind me while watching TV. I turned it off and hid behind the sofa.
It was my father. We locked eyes. He was giving me a stern look. And I knew I would never make it to adulthood.
“What’re you doing?” he said.
I had no answer.
His face broke into a smile. He fuzzed my hair. Then, he sat beside me.
“Well,” he said. “Don’t just sit there, turn on the TV.”
I couldn’t believe it. What was happening? We watched TV together, without saying anything to each other. Johnny was in good form.
On the first commercial break, my father went into the kitchen and returned with a ham sandwich, cut in half, and two glasses of milk. We clinked our glasses together.
“Here’s to Johnny,” my father said. “Cheers.”
What?
I didn’t know my father had heard of Johnny Carson, let alone knew him on a first-name basis.
Before the show was over, he turned to me and rested a paw on my shoulder. He winked.
It’s funny how much one wink can say.
“Don’t stay up too late,” he said in a fatherly voice. “You got school, you know.”
He walked upstairs and disappeared.
That night, I was a full-grown man. At breakfast the next morning, I discovered my voice had dropped an octave, and I had sprouted armpit hair.
Anyway, these are things you think about when you walk the late-night streets, like I’m doing.
A police cruiser passes me. I wave. The sidewalk runs out, so I turn back for the hotel.
The man with the stroller of tin cans is behind me now. He’s following me. I am getting worried.
“Hey man,” he says to me. “Wait up!”
Our Father, who art in Heaven…
He parks his stroller, then jogs toward me. “Dude,” he says, removing his hat. “I saw you walking by, and I was just gonna say…”
I cut him off. I already know where this is going, and he doesn’t need to humiliate himself for my sake. I reach into my wallet to hand him a five.
He holds his hands up.
“No, dude,” he says, “Don’t want your money, I just wanted say, bless you, in the name of the Lord, man. I saw an angel following you, I just thought you’d wanna know, ‘cause I see stuff like that.”
We shake hands, he winks at me. I hear his tin cans rattle while he walks away.
Maybe there’s hope for us night-people after all.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.

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