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When they were younger, I could control the sleep habits of my sons, demanding that they sleep no later than 10 a.m. on summer weekdays. Now they are adolescents and I have learned to enjoy the quiet passing of a morning while they sleep in darkened rooms until the afternoon sun has crossed high to the west.

I remember the days, just a few years past, when their sister slept until 3 in the afternoon, following a night that ended near sunrise. By the time she descended the stairs, our day was over. We missed her. We wanted her back, swimming with us at the pool, sharing breakfast.

I secretly envied her solitary, mysterious existence and wished I could enter her world of nocturnal activity. I wanted to sleep all day, through the heat, the traffic and the interminable hours of harsh daylight.

My 17th summer was a night owl's dream. My best friend David and I took a paper route together, and those early morning deliveries anchored and shaped our days. We left our parents' houses at about 9 p.m., following dinner and an obligatory visit with family. David picked me up in his friend Steve's big old Buick convertible, loaned to him for the summer. We rendezvoused with friends at Dobbs House over a slice of chocolate or lemon ice box pie, and consumed pots of watered-down coffee that tasted like steel.

Some nights we played nine holes with glow-in-the-dark balls on the lighted par-three golf course. Sweat mingled with Off insect repellent, and the heat eventually drove us into an air-conditioned place.

By 1 a.m., we were pulling on worn bowling shoes at the Summer Avenue All-Night Bowling Lanes. At this hour, we could play unlimited games for a flat fee which perfectly fit the budget of a paper boy and paper girl. We played pick-up games with strangers, switched balls as often as we wanted, ate barbecue potato chips and drank gallons of coke.

At 4 a.m. we picked up our newspaper bundles at a designated drop-off site, and folded and bagged beneath a neighborhood street light, listening to rhythm and blues on the radio. Jerry Butler, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett -- voices I always associate with those liquid summer Memphis nights. The vinyl Buick seats were slick with dew, so I rode atop the seat back, my hair flying in the cool black air, while David drove us to heavily wooded suburban avenues where no one was awake as the sun crept up.

Sometimes we delivered on foot, sometimes we wove a slow, giant S down the middle of the street, pitching the papers onto front porches with a minimal degree of accuracy. We retrieved strays from flower beds and boxwood borders. Our hands were stained a powdery gray.

By full sun-up we were back at Dobbs House for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits, hash browns, biscuits and more of that metallic coffee. Our voices and bodies tired, we listened to the chatty waitresses as they flirted with truckers who smelled of shampoo and aftershave.

Early morning traffic was building as we wound our way home, past the high school, past Jimmy Carter's house on Shady Grove Lane, past the massive lawn of the Second Baptist Church. David dropped me at the foot of my driveway and I crept through the back door, down the hall and into bed. Sometimes he came inside with me and we collapsed together in exhaustion and awoke in the middle of the stifling afternoon, fully clothed, our mouths clouded with the mingled tastes of smoke and coffee.

Sleep was heavy, a cottony backlit pit with no sounds, no voices, no agenda. We slept through the family's showers and toilet flushes, through doors slamming and cars cranking. We slept with the appetite of youth -- nothing was as important as what we were doing. We slept until our eyes could no longer stay closed. Then we started the day once again, aiming for dawn and a streetlit corner.

(A version of this article was first published in July of 1997)

  • Summer days drifting away, but oh, those summer nights memories of innocent adolescence.

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