Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Ellen McGrath Smith: On Being a Late-Night Motion Detector Detector

To be a late-night motion detector detector, it is generally good not to be an early riser.

            Late nights and early mornings only go together when you’re trying to burn the candle at both ends, and aren’t candles the original motion detectors? Just stare at the flame and watch it mimic the body of a mystic, standing tall and near-transparent in the utter stillness; any movement at all in the room can send the flame prostrate and awaiting resurrection, benediction, etc. 

            Back in August, my teaching assistant showed us, during our Zoom remote class, a little green plastic skull as her icebreaker item on the first day of poetry class. She told us that some dude at a Renaissance Faire just walked up and wordlessly handed it to her, and that now she keeps it with her at all times, not because she liked the dude per se but because she loves skulls. We could see from some wall-hangings behind her in the Zoom frame that this was most definitely true. But then I had to go off on a speech about stoicism, memento mori, St. Jerome, and the We Croak app, and I don’t know if I’m mad at myself for that or if that’s just the kind of thing students expect their college teachers to do. Or maybe it’s what their parents expect college teachers to do, and there’s always that fear that some right-wing mom or dad’s looking in if their kid is taking their remote classes at home rather than coming to campus to in theory only be in contact with the people in their pod.

            But, see, I’ve gone into my day job, veering away from the job I hardly ever talk about—

            So: late-night motion detector detector. It doesn’t pay well. In fact, to do the job you have to pay the electric company just to get in the door. No light, no detection of the motion which, swallowed up in the dark, is merely zen koan motion, no cause for alarm, which is why I’ve been staying away from the news lately, so that the shadows preying on other shadows registers to me as one undifferentiated shadow like a pillow over the face. Of course, one eventually needs to reemerge and watch the darkness rupture into light and ask, “What’s moving out there anyway?”

            It’s always concerning when the motion detector light detects motion that the dog has failed to—concerning at first, but then the dog’s unconcern signals to me that most likely a moving branch or tiny rodent has made it to the big time in the backyard, klieg-lit, fifteen minutes or less of lurid fame. Last week, I was soaking in the inflatable hot tub (I need to say “inflatable” so you don’t think I can afford a $3,000 real hot tub) that I purchased in March, just when it was clear that COVID-19 was going to keep me inside for a long time, and because I’m a late-night motion detector detector, it turns out that I was right because it’s December, nine months later, and someone in the U.S. is currently dying of COVID every two minutes and we just learned from some emails that our president’s plan was “herd immunity,” which pretty much amounts to negligent homicide.

            Anyway, I was having a nice soak. There was a sharp chill in the air and a clear sky: optimal (inflatable) hot tub conditions. The motion detector light turned on, the dog failed to bark, and there on the path through the yard was a hefty rat. Another COVID provision this year has been the construction of a bird house, which gained us the loyalty of a family of mourning doves and also attracted rats because they like the food we give to the birds as much as the birds do. I watched the rat, who had stopped at the middle of the stone pathway and seemed to be sniffing around. I tried hard to accept the rat’s presence because, two months ago, when I’d spotted one running errands in the garden, I’d told my husband, who put out poison. When he found the rat dead, we both hugged each other and cried a little, which seems weird but we do love animals and generally use live traps for the mice who come into our house. I also think we cried because life and death are salient issues these days and because, since we haven’t properly socialized for nearly a year, we’ve taken to socializing as much as we can with the animals we come across. So I watched the rat as I leaned against the inflated rim of the tub, staring at it from the second story, where I felt safe from it. After a few minutes passed, I rapped the deck railing, and it scampered into the shadows near the rusted Sears and Roebuck shed in the back of our yard—the one I won’t let my husband replace with a garage because it’s an antique: inside, the couple who must have lived here in the late nineteen-teens had written some love graffiti on the walls. Their names were Frank and Irene. They even put graffiti up about a fight they were having at one point: a heart with a zigzag break down its length.

When I saw the rat go toward the shed, I recognized what I already knew, that rats were living under the Sears and Roebuck prefab shed from the early twentieth century. But then something else happened. Two tiny yellow eyes stared back at me from the shadows near the shed. This has happened with my dog and with my cats, but I had never experienced this with a rat. Our eyes communed until the motion detector light shut off for lack of motion.

Last night, we had a snowstorm up the east coast. Continuous snowfall that was both gorgeous and restrictive—if we weren’t already restricted enough by the 3,000-deaths-per-day surge of COVID-19 in the haplessly governed United States of America. Halfway through Rachel Maddow, I decided I needed to experience this big snow from inside the inflatable hot tub. Normally, I put on a swimsuit, a beach towel, a robe, and some rubber sandals to go out to the tub. But there was snow between the door and the tub, which meant that I needed to wear wellies to the hot tub, which I did. Another complicator was the fact that I’d let the timer on the tub’s heater lapse so that, rather than the optimal 104 degrees, the tub was only 88 degrees. No big, I thought, since 88 degrees is a hot summer’s day. After lifting the cover, which was weighted on one side with a baby-sized chunk of ice, I sat on the edge, slipped off my wellies and robe, and entered. It could have been hotter, but it was at least a comforting warmth as I sat in the water and watched the relentless snowflakes fall over the streetlight behind our house. A seven-inch bar of snow sat undisturbed on the gate to the back alley. Everything was cushioned, and I liked this new experience. It is important to find new experiences even within the confines of home when you’re into your ninth month of being confined to your home. I guarantee that none of this would have happened if there weren’t a pandemic. I certainly wouldn’t be as free to be the nocturnal creature I’m predisposed to be if the pandemic hadn’t changed the nature of my day job.

Indulging my nocturnal predisposition, I have fully fledged as a late-night motion detector detector. The light in the darkness is ever a reminder that the world is kinetic. In these times when many of us have been forced to recognize that war isn’t always kinetic but stealth, that wars can happen when flag-decked avatars manage to convince a large number of Americans that other Americans are worse enemies than, say, a foreign dictator—the vast reach of the night takes on an infinitesimal twitter of wires being cut, tires being slashed, trollbots starting their workdays on the other side of the globe—rehearsing lines they’ll whisper to some of my neighbors, some of my kin; urging them to make war against the rest of us.

Who can rest through these machinations?

As I mentioned, the pay is poor, but you could be rewarded by watching the others wake up just as the dawn wipes your face with its stiff cloth. You could prevent—or at least witness—a burglary or home invasion. What could be better than that?


Ellen McGrath Smith’s poetry collections include Nobody’s Jackknife (West End, 2015). She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and Carlow University.

Copyright 2021 Ellen McGrath Smith

3 comments on “Ellen McGrath Smith: On Being a Late-Night Motion Detector Detector

  1. ellenmcgsmith
    March 4, 2021

    Thanks so much for reading!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Barbara Huntington
    March 4, 2021

    And what could be better that a motion detector detector? I do have many critters in the backyard, but my pup is a good motion detector and I so love my sleep.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rosemaryboehm
    March 4, 2021

    I enjoyed this mightily.

    Liked by 1 person

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