I have yet to catch the moment when summer disappears

ALTHOUGH I'm not a morning person, I've chosen to get up 45 minutes earlier than I have to each day just to walk from a distant free parking spot to the office at the university where I work. All through the sandal season, and even now that it's fall, I've chosen to keep on walking. The street where I park my old sedan is lined with skinny palm trees and small stucco apartments. If it is Monday, I park on the north side of the street. If it is Tuesday, I park on the south side. If I forget, I get a ticket. Today, I park on the south side. The last puffs of car exhaust tickle my nose and the cough of the engine echoes in my mind as I turn on squeaky new heels and set out.

If I am on time, I pass a woman wearing pink bedroom slippers and a gray sweater that has more nubs in it than the poodle she is walking. It's too early for her dog to look as well groomed as it does. She has yet to say hello to me, except for once, months ago on a blazing barefoot morning. Wrapped in their silence, they stay a morning mystery.

I turn the corner, heading north. At a house where the windows are never open and the lace curtains never move, in a terraced yard behind wire fences, somebody's cherry tomatoes glow. A giant sunflower with head bowed in sleep, leaves outstretched like arms, makes a stalky sentry. Through the summer, I have watched these tomato plants flower, sprout promises of salads in the form of chartreuse nuggets, then grow heavy with plump red tomatoes, nourished, apparently, by nothing but smog.

But on this morning, the smog has lifted. The oppressive breath of summer has vanished, but I do not yet feel November's nip. The air, for a change, feels cool and fresh. The tomatoes rot on the ground, a feast for flies. A spider in a hurry weaves a dew-dusted web. Now the sunflower watches over the early blooming plants of autumn: chard and basil gone to seed.

Several blocks on, houses sport carriage lamps and brass door knockers. Bigger, fancier trees line the streets, their thick, bushy leaves still showing off the lushness of summer. A calico cat with upwardly mobile ambitions sleeps with one eye open, under a white BMW. He blinks when I pass him, in my stylish, moderately priced shoes. A house surrounded by lilies displays a sign: ``No solicitors. No deliveries before 9 a.m.'' The sign is a success. I've never seen a single delivery truck. It's just another late summer morning here.

Further up the street, there's a terraced rose garden, and high above that a picture window where every morning a silver-haired balding man with a preference for blue shirts sits, reading a paper I will never hear crackle and sipping coffee I will never smell. When I am on time, my head bobbing through his roses attracts his eye and we nod at each other. When I am late, he is gone. I have yet to catch the man in the act of leaving, of pushing himself away from his unseen, but undoubtedly delicious, breakfast, but then, I have yet to catch the moment summer disappears.

Soon I walk past stores. Windows full of shoes appear, arranged just for me, I like to think. A parade of leather slippers and pumps in deep autumn browns and maroons dances silently in the early morning light. A pair like the new ones I am wearing leads the way.

Next door, a window full of clocks, each with a different time, and glittering slyly. After that, picture frames, with no one framed in the window but me.

When I am on time, I pass a policeman in his patrol car as he enters a two-story parking structure. He waves his deeply tanned arm at me, then drives up the ramp of the empty lot. When he turns the corner, I cross below against the light. But if I am late, I must stop at the light so that back on the street he will greet me there.

Alone on the streets of the usually bustling place, I feel rich, and why not? I have had my choice of parking places and chosen one on a faraway lane. Walking is its own reward.

At the entrance to the university, buses belch and stink, depositing people who enter the grounds. They scuffle among the first fallen leaves, speak in muffled voices, and move with the automated rhythm of sleepy people going to work. Three students, hardier than I, zoom by in a convertible, their arms bare and their hair flying in the cool morning air. And in the practiced hands of a Japanese gardener, a raspy rake scrapes the leaf-littered sidewalk.

A woman in bifocals holds a boy in a Disneyland shirt by the hand. As I start to squeak past them, he tugs at her to ask a question I cannot hear. Then she turns to me. ``Excuse me,'' she says. ``Where are the eucalyptus trees?''

``And the koalas,'' the boy adds.

``There are no koala bears here,'' I tell him. It is strange to think of this declaration as my first sentence of the day, and I notice his face has fallen. ``But you're standing under a row of eucalyptus trees. You can always tell by the smell of the leaves.''

I reach up and snap off a handful, shaped like slivers of moon. I crumble them in my hands, then gently open them. The leaves release a pungent, heady fragrance, unfolding like another day.

But I have no time to chat, not even to a crestfallen boy. The chimes begin their hourly major-key cadence. Then come the first gongs of the 8 o'clock hour, alternating tones and reverberations in a minor key that sound deeper, richer, sadder, and fuller than they usually do, on this cool September morning, my first day of new fall shoes. When I join the people with their heels clacking through the office entrances, I am exactly, precisely, absolutely on time, smelling of eucalyptus and summer.

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