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THE DOG DAYS


It's funny how at the end of summer, around the latter part of August and the first weeks of September, every day is like Sunday. There's no purpose to this dull edge of a season, one that started out with such promise and excitement. Time struggles, and the hours are flat and uneventful. The dark green canopy of trees begins to shed some of its first leaves, and they fall like rusty butterflies long before anyone takes notice. The shadows are not yet blue, but like soft mounds of discarded thoughts. You would expect to find businessmen down on their luck taking a stroll through a neglected city park, killing time. Kids don't yell with that pure thrill of going berzerk. They snicker, they laugh to themselves, they drift around like mental patients on a furlough from the towering gothic dungeons they otherwise languish in. The calendar in the repair garage is clean and untouched, as if no one bothered to consult it with oily fingers.

You don't plan anything at this time; plans fall apart in your hands as you compose them. Why go to Mexico now, with the beaches beginning to rot in their exploited coves? You don't want to eat the food there. The waiters are all going back to the mountains to hibernate. The cooks are second-stringers who specialize in greasy pork and second-day fish. You wait a long time at the table drumming your fingers on the paper tablecloth. In fact, everything looks tired, played out, no longer able to inspire some elusive sense of joy, or the possibility of falling in love. Farmers don't look out of their windows at the browning leaves of the corn crop; the fruit trees are idle. The markets don't buzz with expectant shoppers looking for ideas on what to cook that night. The stalls are dirty, with the half-empty bins holding all those rejected strawberries and blemished plums. The bananas are soft, as if pinched too many times.

But the sun is high up in the satin-colored sky, hanging by some chain that keeps swinging from east to west, wearing an invisible groove into eternity. You can almost hear the rusty links grinding like cosmic crickets overhead. The shadow that sprawls at your feet grows longer as you walk, and your thoughts begin to disintegrate into the muddle of traffic. You wonder why you have lived so long. You think that mortality may well be a good idea, with its power to unplug the maniacal laws of nature.

Who reads mail in such a dead-end season of the year? Who cares what anyone thinks in this heat? Is there news worth hearing on the television? What possible editorial has an angle you haven't heard before? Every villain is over-exposed and hoping to disappear into the silence to sleep until fall. The stores offer ridiculous discounts for dresses and suits that have lost all their charm. A hat is an anachronism, even though the light continues to bore down and grate against the bleached stones. A bakery shop I used to go to for coffee and a pan dolce has closed until school starts. The blinds are drawn, and the little light that leeches through falls upon the floor like the bars of a prison cell.

Back home, in the little town where I live, only the elderly are awake and walking around in the tedium of afternoon. They wait for cars to pass before crossing the street. Their hair lifts as a truck roars through. When it is gone, the sky encloses outer space in its pale blue ceiling. Reality is filtered through a Methodist imagination, without miracles or contradictions. You feel earth groan like an old church organ; the cough you hear is of someone about to read scripture. No one wants to move. It is difficult to even cross your legs. The weight of your consciousness bows your head down and you find yourself staring at the soup stain on your pants. It's too early to drink, or to sit in front of the tube. The kitchen is closed, cold, sterile in its gloomy silence. The cabinets are full of tuna fish cans, and stale chocolate. You smell the lingerings of an ancient supper of fried potatoes and liver. You don't want to remember what made you think this might be enjoyable. Nothing is enjoyable. Everything is dull and beginning to whimper and pine for better days.

You remember a scene from your early childhood, when your mother came home from drinking coffee with her neighbor. Her breath was sour when she kissed you, and you smelled cigarette smoke on her blouse. She was grumpy and went up to the bedroom to read; your dad wouldn't be home for hours. Your older brothers were off playing on a raft in a factory pond whose water had turned a mysterious and stomach-turning pink color, like Pepto-Bismol. Long empty streets rayed out from your house. The traffic was sparse; a repair truck went along slowly looking for the right address. A man with a flashlight and a tablet was reading electric meters, while a dog lunged at the drapes of a window hysterical with barking. The houses were waiting for a rainstorm. The bricks were gathering dust in the seams, and erasing their angles with the thinning of the light. Already the evening was concentrating the powdery dark and building a huge Chinese wall of advancing night. Nothing could stop it from crushing whatever was left of hope and expectation.

In the basement, you could feel the continuation of the graveyard from across the street. The spirits were clawing with their fingers at the foundations, looking for some means of escape from the coffins they had been given. The dregs of summer were clinging to them like the rags they were buried in. You could almost smell the mold of their breath, the desperation they felt at having wandered into the shallows of eternity. What they wouldn't give to smell a rose. Or hear the first shrill cry of a child stepping out into a June morning. They were trapped in the parched earth, their ears keen to sense some tiny morsel of sound that might guide them. But nothing could reach down that far and excite their dead souls. You pitied them; you had all of this abundance of glittering daylight to yourself, to waste, to discard like so many yellowing newspapers.

When the door opened above you, into the living room, you knew it was your dad coming in from work. He wanted a drink, and when he sat down, the antiquated sunlight spread over his shoulders and the back of his neck. He was unhappy about something. He wouldn't confide in you. He was waiting for your mother to awake, to come down in slippers, to enter into the mortuary of the kitchen and pry open the refrigerator, and pull down the heavy, frost-glued freezer door and remove the pitcher with the martinis. She would pour out a measure of the gelatinous white gin and spear two olives on a tooth pick, and lay out some oyster crackers on a saucer, and come toddling out into the dusty living room to offer these consolations to a man who sat there with the relic of expectation in his eyes.

My brothers would come home next and sit in their rooms turning the pages of comic books. Nothing could induce them to join the rest of the family. Their investment was in a pale sliver of summer's light which allowed them to read without a lamp. They didn't ask for much. They were willing to tolerate the death of summer, so long as they could follow the grimly mechanical morality of Superman on his next adventure.

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