Jennifer Key is author of The Old Dominion, winner of the 2012 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry.
Her prizes include a Henry Hoyns Fellowship at the University of Virginia and a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin.
The mosquitoes come out at night
and orbit the kids sailing on skateboards
down Kansas Street to Main,
where they light cigarettes and loiter
at picnic tables anchored in concrete.
There they plot escape
under old man Carius’s unblinking, blue eye
as he leans, arms crossed, against the rail,
lording over his empire
of hotdogs and root beer floats
like Croesus when the minting business was brisk.
His domain hogs two town blocks
across from the Brass Bull
(where dads who sell insurance and Chevys
shoot darts by night)
and the storefront, now dark, of Ray’s Hairport
(the Playboys folded into Field & Stream).
Wind from the west snaps like a sheet on a line,
rattling cicada shells stuck to window screens,
and the girls taking orders are so bored
first period Algebra looks like a reprieve.
They’ll be glad when the stand
is shuttered for the season in a week.
For now, the boys slurp soda pop down to the dregs,
talk about how they’ll never live someplace again
where all they hear at night are barking dogs
and the jangle of wind-chimes;
where there’s no place to go but here
or the basement of Calvary Baptist for youth group,
but they can’t drive yet and they don’t give a rat’s ass
about getting saved, so they shut their eyes
and picture the second coming
of the homecoming queen, who’s knocked-up
but doesn’t know it yet. She’ll be graduated, married,
and divorced within the year.
For now she’s thin, bronze as a penny from the tanning bed
as she leans against the juice bar at the new Gold’s Gym
and surveys the merchandise:
guys girdled with muscle belts and bulked up
on creatine until their biceps pump
with ambition and buying power.
Later tonight when the town’s shut down,
the kids will surf the wide, straight streets
named for states they’ve never seen,
scale the chain-link fence to the county pool,
that tinfoil glare on prairie afternoons,
and shed their cutoffs as fast as their pasts.
They want only one thing, and they think
they will get it, if not this year then the next—
in two strides now they lope across all 50 states
of America stenciled on asphalt
behind the elementary school.
The country’s not going anywhere, but they are,
and their future’s idling just beyond the streetlight,
as predictable as the moon waiting to rise,
so they dive again and again
into that chlorinated lake of light,
four feet down in the same old soil,
and they can’t be quiet about it
because they are saying goodbye.
What do they care? What do they care
when most nights the cops won’t bother
unless a neighbor complains,
and anyway out here a kid
can see what’s coming
long before it gets there.
It wasn’t what I thought it was
nights I sat up late, listening to my parents.
Dog days, they said, meaning the month
we had to swim through
like wet retrievers paddling
the reflecting pool of summer afternoons
until we reached September’s distant, dry shore.
They were the days dogs carried an odor
as they hauled their hairy, heavy selves
into the damp cave yawning under the porch
or lay panting, laboring, snoring where they were,
flat-out on the sidewalk; they were
days when summer dragged
on, not going gracefully—
out of loyalty
or persistence, I do not know.
They were days only dogs
seemed smart enough to sleep it off,
whimpering their doggy dreams.
They were slow days dog claws did not click
as they did not follow me through the house
where I was alone and there wasn’t a thing to do,
days I was sent outside to play
until the shadows stretched their long arms
and called me home. It was the season
bees rattled in the windfall crabapples,
insufferable days I was put to bed
while twilight burned, not yet dark—
an injustice when I could hear adults talking
on the screened in porch.
Their words lived a second life,
drifting through my window,
where dusk draped her loose gown,
a lavender silk scissored by the snap of bat wings.
Dog days, they said, an invocation, a command
for summer to heel, sit, stay, obey,
but already the mild, dreaming world was turning,
writing its own translation of itself,
which in any tongue surely means goodbye.
Sirius was swimming away,
pulled into night’s riptide, leaving us
to our own diminished light here on Earth.
In the morning the weather broke,
and when I woke the trees spoke in tongues,
their leaves so glad to be alive again,
and their words and my parents’ now made sense.
I knew then, at last, day after dog day—
tongues lolling—would come wagging, bounding
to greet me. I thought here they come,
not knowing I was already watching them go.