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By the Dawn's Early Light--With Headlights--at Last Dreaming


At a quarter past dawn, the sky is just about the same color as the street, a sort of black-backed silver and so in your car you feel not so much that you're driving but that you're passing through, a cloud, maybe, or a planet made of clouds. Passing through another dimension, right out of Madeleine L'Engle, in which instead of driving you're sailing across the floor, like a manta ray or a page of newspaper unhitched by the wind. Telephone poles move past, dark as trees after rain, and lines of stoplights chant their colors to empty streets like monks at evensong.

In the held-breath cool of a summer morning, things are newly still. Signs and electric wires, plastic bags along the curb, women waiting for the bus seem caught in the moment just before or after movement, like a screen door or a spill of light in an Edward Hopper painting.

At a quarter past dawn, you're pretty sure you're alone on the road and then you realize you're not. Headlights lift up the trailing tail of darkness as they race toward you, swoosh past and it's amazing how many cars are on the street, even more on the freeway at this hour. Everyone's moving loose and a little erratic, because there seems to be so much room and that's pretty weird.

Who are all these people and where on earth are they going? You can tell the ones who've been driving all night because their faces are the most relaxed; they're feeling better than they have in a while. That long, long hour before the sky finally gives a little is always the hardest, when the world has reduced itself to the 10-foot sweep of your headlights. Then the sun pries the night from the horizon, and the spine straightens a bit, and hope uncurls like a runner-bean seedling.

At a quarter past dawn, things are so quiet you can hear the murmur of traffic reports and talk radio in cars as they pass. Even trucks that will later vibrate the sidewalk with bass, lowriders that will shout the expletives of rap move quietly, whispering themselves awake, passing through the odd world of an L.A. morning without a ripple.

Most of the store windows and house windows are flat and dark--businesses are closed and folks still asleep--but some glow. From here and then there comes the hot and salty smell of meat cooking or the funk of strong coffee just ground. They are exciting smells, tantalizing and foreign--early-morning breakfast in a booth with worn-thin silver and the coffee cups white as hard-boiled eggs is inevitably the marker of adventure or flight. Just thinking about it makes either seem possible, almost real.

At a quarter past dawn, alone on a road, suspended, it's hard sometimes to remember why you're here. Where you came from. Where exactly you're going. The car seems to know and that's a good thing because even the most familiar thoroughfare seems off, like a room lighted by a lamp kicked down a couple of watts or a wall on which the pictures have been rearranged. Just a little bit.

Turning down well-known streets, you expect to see the strangest things: The apartment you shared with your girlfriends that summer in Ocean City. The Missouri house that belonged to a young man you loved so much your heart practiced breaking every time you saw him. A green hill you climbed with your father and your baby son in another country altogether.

At a quarter past dawn, it's sometimes hard to know who you are. Lifted from the warm bath of sleep and propelled into action, your mind blinks between dream and waking. Which is real? You are moving through space and time, through memory and thought. With any luck at all, it's your thought, your memories. But it's hard to tell, driving, at a quarter past dawn.

Mary McNamara can be reached at

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