Twilight Gardening and Kite Fighting

Sunflowers along Susan's white picket fence | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Fall doesn't really fall in southern California until long after the traditional September date on the calendar. But three colors are everywhere right now - the dark gold of dry vegetation, the crimson splash of bougainvillea spilling from hillsides and walls, and the vivid pink floss-silk tree blooming everywhere.

Autumn brings some legendary hot days, and yet the early evening air turns the color of honey - not white like summer - and because the garden is ragged, I turn to night gardening.

Not full dark. Many of us wait until the sky turns the color of new jeans, a beautiful darker blue, and the sidewalk finally cools off. Then we head out with clippers. I've spent twenty years trimming sunflowers and roses hanging over the white fence my neighbor Mike built, greeting every evening other neighbors who come out to walk at dusk, as well as strangers or new people who stop to tell me stories.

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My brother Jeff used to stop by around this time to help me weed or tell me his latest legend. Seventeen years ago, on a night like this, he brought me a pink floss-silk tree seedling, one he'd started from the actual small seed like a peppercorn inside the cottony fluff. We planted it in the parking strip in front of my house. "It's your security tree," he said proudly, because of the masses of terrible sharp thorns all along the trunk it would eventually grow. "Keep you safe."

(It's true that one morning years ago, a neighbor no one liked was drinking a beer -- yes, at 11 am -- and riding a kid-sized bike with long handlebars when he gave me an evil glare and then crashed straight into the tree trunk. There was blood. He moved away a short time later.)

But now my brother is gone, having passed away in 2002, and his tree is maybe fifty feet tall, covered this fall with more luscious pink flowers than ever, so many that the hummingbirds fight even at twilight on the branches above my head. I am sweeping blossoms from the asphalt, and yet they're raining down on my head, as the hummingbirds screech and flash iridescent green.

Blossoms on the street in front of my house -- petals on a dark black pavement | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

In this coolness, this release of the last sunlight in the west and the stunning blue in the east, people tell me stories.

One night, as I swept here, an elderly woman pulled up in a wood-paneled station wagon and asked if I was "the writer." I said yes. She stood beside me at the fence, telling me about a young woman from Riverside's past. Was it a classmate of her mother's at the local high school? I can't remember. But she said, "This girl fell in love with a man down there," pointing down my street where three blocks away, Riverside's Chinatown used to be in the early 1900s. "She was a sixteen year old girl and she went to his store. He was so handsome, she told my mother. He was much older. Well, they fell in love, and she got pregnant."

I stopped sweeping. I couldn't imagine how terrified she must have been. "She had twin girls," the woman said. "They took the babies away and someone else raised them, and she always looked for those girls, for a long time afterward. No one talked about them. Ever. And she never saw him again."

Carrying Corona clippers to cut some lavender for a friend | Photograph by Douglas McCullohI sweep the pink flowers up now, and think about these girls, and where they might have ended up, and what stories they might know, or not. I move to the sunflowers, which every year grow ten and twelve feet tall and lean over the sidewalk. I planted the first ones twenty years ago. In October, the flowers are still everywhere, but the seedheads fall on the cement, and the branches break off in the wind. On the telephone wires near me, the yellow finches who eat the sunflower seeds all day call each other mournfully, their questioning chirps like floating commas. They hate to see me trimming.

Parades of people pass by, the friends and dogs I see every night; a new neighbor who pulls her son in a wagon to teach him the word "sunflower" but can't let him touch them because of allergies; a woman who one night berated me for letting the blooms droop over the sidewalk, and then returned the next night and said she was visiting her mother, who was dying, and whose favorite flower was the sunflower, and she asked me angrily to cut her some, and then she never appeared again.

Last week, everyone kept saying how humid it was. I joked with one man who passes by occasionally that it felt like Louisiana. He replied that it was nothing compared with where he'd lived as a child - the mouth of the Amazon.

"What?" I said, putting down my Corona clippers. "The Amazon?"

"I was very young. And I remember kite fighting."

"Kite fighting?"

It must have been the 1960s. The young boys made their own kites, from wood and paper and string. And then, he said, they spent hours scavenging in town for bottles. "They broke the bottles and damaged each other's kites?" I asked, and he shook his head.

Flowering tree in front of the house | Photograph by Douglas McCullohThey laboriously broke the bottles into smaller and smaller pieces, and ground the glass with rocks and hammers until they had sharp-edged sand. They made a paste, mixed the ground glass with the paste, and applied it to their kite strings. Then they went to the river basin and launched the kites, and when they were high in the sky, the boys crossed the strings to cut each other. "Whoever had the last kite in the sky won," he said.

I was stunned. I imagined the strings made dangerous, glistening with glass shards, and the kites suspended for moments without their boys below. Did they fall or disappear into the distance? I imagined the boys spending days at these tasks, with no adults around, making up their own games and competitions, roaming free as we used to here in southern California at the rivers and foothills and arroyos.

My neighbor said goodbye and headed down the street, his running shoes silent on the cooler sidewalk. I cut sunflowers for another hour, until it was full dark and the streetlights lit up the yellow petals. But all I could think about was how lucky it is to be the night gardener on a block like mine. And maybe like yours.

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room." She teaches at UCRiverside. Read all her posts on KCET here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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