Wise Poets – Hayden Saunier – 14 Degrees Below Zero in the Grocery Store Parking Lot

Hayden Saunier

A dog and I stare at each other
from our separate cars, waiting for our people to return.
He’s a shepherd mix, big head, big ears,
like me, he’s riding shotgun.
Heat blares inside my car,
exhaust plumes from the pickup truck he’s in,
so I know he isn’t freezing but I don’t know
if he’s a he or a she, so I just think he.
He watches doors slide open and closed, open and closed.
So do I.
We look at each other, then back to the doors and I wonder
who will come back first—his owner or my friend?
I watch the doors, then the dog. I watch
two girls walk to their car, chuck frozen A-Treat soda cans
out of the dented trunk, make room for beer.
I look back to the doors, then the dog, and I see
a man in the driver’s seat—his owner has come back!
He’s won!
But I can’t see the dog.
I want to see the dog.
I want to see that he’s happy he won,
even though he didn’t know there was a contest,
even though he might not be a he,
I want to know he loves his owner, even though
I am assuming all this, I assume things, I assume, I do.
I assume he’s a he, I assume his owner loves him,
I assume my friend is coming back,
(milk, she said, just milk).
The man in the truck sits head down, cap down,
rolling a smoke, or checking his phone but
something’s not right. I watch.
I see the stripe on what I think is the man’s cap
turn into the collar on the dog,
and I realize it’s the dog in the truck, not a man in the truck,
it’s still the dog, like it’s still me, waiting,
only he moved over to the driver’s seat. If he’s a he.
I’ve confused a dog and a man. Oh god, I think,
I’m getting carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heat vent,
but that’s when my friend gets back in the car
with milk, bread, jello, toothpaste, laundry soap.
She begins a story about some guy at the checkout counter
as she backs the car away from the dog
and the truck and the doors and I’m suddenly sad now,
that churned-up-torn-inside-the-chest-feeling sad
because we’re leaving and I wish I hadn’t won,
I wish he’d won, but he didn’t, I won,
and he might not be a he, and I keep twisting, looking
back, hoping for a glimpse of the owner,
but no one’s walking toward the dog in the truck
who could get carbon monoxide poisoning,
and there’s nothing I can do
but watch as long as I can,
because I need to know that he’s all right,
because we were the same back there,
we were the same.