The navy blue Ford pickup, with a white roof and rusted bed, rambled down the road through the gray, wide-open country. Its 300,000-mile engine announced its approach long before it came into view, and its memory only faded after it was miles gone.
The road was straight and flat. The sparse, dead grass surrounding it stretched for miles in every direction, interspersed at random intervals by lone Elm trees whose best days had long since been forgotten.
The boy sat in the front seat, counting each one as they passed by his window, desperate for something to occupy his mind. And when the fumes leaking through the old Ford’s floorboards, and the hum of the old engine proved too much, he would drift off into dreamless sleep. Then, when he awoke, the count would restart. The cycle had been the same for three days, and he feared it would continue into eternity.
When he could not sleep, and he could count the Elm trees no more, he spent his time looking up at the man next to him from the corner of his eye. It was a dangerous game, for it seemed that one of the man’s greatest dislikes was to be observed. When the boy grew too careless and was caught in his study, the man would look down at him, his face indecipherable, and grunt with displeasure. Then it was back to the trees.
But, he found himself back at his old game now. His eyes turned ever so slightly to the left, taking in all he could of the man behind the steering wheel.
Poking from the front of the man’s sweat-stained Stetson was a thin line of jet black hair. His nose was large and crooked and scarred from the countless cycles of breaking and healing. His jaw was angular but wide, like the men who played cowboys in the movies. And his mouth was set in a perpetual flat line that gave no hint of a smile or a frown. Unreadable as the horizon before them, beyond which there was no telling what awaited.
People had always said the boy looked like him, and each time they did, a small flame of pride had been stoked to life somewhere in his chest. But each night when he looked in the mirror, try as he might he could not see it. His hair was the same raven black, that was true, but the nose was different. And the chin was wrong. And, unlike his father, he could not help but frown when he was sad and smile when he felt joy.
His mother had made the boy smile the most. She had made everybody smile. It was her gift. The boy was young, but he knew that’s what it was. A gift. Given to a very small number of people, and, if they weren’t careful, even they could lose it.
In the rare moments of his life where his father did smile, it was always at her. And when she had looked at him and smiled back, he had felt as though he were witnessing something sacred. Holy even. Like what God had intended when He first made Eve from Adam.
He remembered a night that he had lay awake far after the time his mother had tucked him in, and soft music had begun to play from somewhere beyond his half-opened door. Stealthily, he had slipped from his room and crept halfway down the staircase.
There, in the middle of the den, were his mother and father, holding each other close and swaying in time with the scratchy voice of a female singer. Their eyes closed, faces content.
The boy had never seen his father dance before. He could hardly believe he was seeing it now. In his mind, his father was a roof thatcher, a crop grower, a cattle brander, an iron shaper, a wild bronco alone of the range. He was hard and unbent as the sheer granite walls of a snowy mountain. He saw now that he was something else as well. He was hers.
The boy had watched them for as long as he dared, jealous in the realization that between them there was a secret world that he would never be part of, but also comforted at the same time. Comforted that their little life in their little home was built upon a foundation of love that, at the time, seemed beyond breaking.
The tin can said otherwise. The tin can, with its half-torn label and its wide, gleaming walls, told him only a fool believed the world could not break what man deemed indestructible.
It had sat between them for the past three days. Like a siren of doom, calling out to him constantly. Not with words, but with feelings of fear, anger, and heartache.
He wanted to turn the handle of the Ford’s passenger side window and fling the gleaming cylinder into the weeds that lined the road. But, he feared what his father might do. And feared even more that if he reached out to grab it, that try as he might he would not be able to lift it and its contents up. That it weighed as heavy in the real world as it weighed on his mind. That it would sit between him and his father forever, a reminder of what they had lost.
A building of some size appeared in the distance, growing larger as the Ford made its way along the thin strip of highway. The father flicked up his pointer finger, and the truck’s one working blinker clicked to life. The truck turned into the motel’s nearly empty parking lot.
Neither one of them moved right away when the vehicle had come to a stop and the key had been pulled from the ignition. Instead, they sat in silence, both contemplating another long, sleepless night.
* * *
The sheets of the flea-infested motel felt more like fine sandpaper than cotton. But the rooms here, he knew, were more often rented by the hour than by the night, and so fine bedding wasn’t to be expected.
It mattered little to him anyways. The sheets could be made of threaded gold, and the mattress of stitched Cumulus, yet still sleep would evade him. He had tried everything, counted sheep, taken pills, prayed hard, and yet he had hardly slept in two weeks.
It was hard to sleep when you were afraid. Not normal afraid. He could recall many nights going back to childhood when he had been scared to death, but his eyes had still blessedly grown heavy and eventually closed.
The night before his father told him he would help brand the cattle. He had been eight years old and was terrified at the thought of the fired iron and burning flesh, but he slept.
He was twelve and would break his first stallion come morning. He could not, at that point, remember a time he had been so nervous, but after an hour he was dreaming.
He was sixteen and would ask her… would ask her to the 4H dance in the morning. Even then he had drifted off.
But this was not normal afraid. It was something new. Something outside of his previous notion of fear, for he was not afraid for his own sake, but for that of the boy who lay in the other twin bed some four feet away from him.
The boy. He saw the boy looking at him often from the corner of his eye, but could not understand why. He also couldn’t understand why he hated it so. Perhaps it was the boy’s eyes. So perceptive. So penetrating. It was as though he could see right through him. See all of the flaws and shortcomings. See the fear that he felt but tried so hard to hide, even from himself. Or perhaps it was that those eyes were a constant reminder of his mother and a constant dark cloud over his soul.
He had his mother’s eyes, that was beyond a doubt. But whenever they were seen together, he and the boy, it was always said they looked alike. And when it was, pride had always filled him. God once said He created man in His image, and so, he maintained that tradition in his own prodigy.
And, he loved the boy. Loved him more than life. More than an early morning sunrise out with the cattle. When the air was still cold but the promise of warmth sped towards him from the horizon.
But when he looked at the boy, he could not see what others saw. Their hair was black, true, but there were a world of differences that so removed them from one another that any common feature of the flesh seemed insignificant.
He had always been a man of few words, even as a child, but he had no problem speaking his mind when he saw a need. His own father had taught him as much. He remembered the words clearly, even now.
‘A man who’s afraid to speak when he ought to is a coward. And a man who speaks when he out not to is a fool.’
No man could call him a fool, for he took the advice to heart and chose his words with careful deliberation. But he knew that somewhere beyond the gates of St. Peter his father was even now cursing him as a coward.
For he saw a need. A need to speak. A need to comfort and console, but he could not find the words. That had been her domain, and it had allowed him to stay in his. He was a rancher, a well digger, a cultivator, a wild horse. Suddenly, those things were not enough.
He knew even now the boy lay awake in the bed next to him but might have been in another room, another motel, another world, and the distance between them would not be changed.
She bridged that gap for them. But now, she was gone. Returned to dust, and resting in the tin can that sat atop the oak veneered dresser where he and the boy had stowed their clothes that evening.
He turned over and looked towards it. It gleamed slightly in the dark room, reflecting the light of the streetlamp leaking through the half-opened curtain. He closed his eyes and imagined for a moment that it was all a dream. That he would awake and the can would be gone, replaced by her warm body sleeping next to him.
“Dad?” He heard a voice say, and the dream vanished.
“Dad?” It said again when he did not answer.
“Yes, boy,” he said finally.
“Can I sleep with you?”
The question took him by surprise. His mother had sometimes allowed it when he had been away on business for the ranch, and when he had told her that a boy his age should stay in his own bed she would only laugh and reply, ‘Then a boy of your age should find his own bed as well.’ And that was that.
“Can I sleep with you, dad? I’m scared.”
I’m afraid too, son, he thought, but all he said was, “Go to sleep, it’ll soon be morning.”
* * *
The morning came, but the fear remained. Its thick scent leaked from their pores like the yolk from the fried eggs sitting in front of them.
“Will that be all sweetheart?” The waitress asked before setting their check down. She turned without waiting for an answer and moved on to the next table, leaving them in their own little world of silence in the corner booth.
The father reached for his wallet and began mentally calculating the tip when the boy spoke for the first time that day.
“Mom always scrambled my eggs,” he said simply, his eyes fixed on the napkin in his lap.
He looked up from the folded bills and down at his son. “She did?” he asked.
“Ya, she did.”
“Well,” he responded, trying to think of what to say. “You should’ve told me that’s how you like them.”
The boy nodded. “And she always made bacon. Not sausage.”
The beginnings of irritation began to tighten his chest. “If that’s what you wanted you should’ve spoken up.”
“And she put ice in my orange juice to keep it cold.”
“And she always put raspberry jelly on the bottom pancake to go with the syrup.”
He dropped his wallet and slapped the table with both hands. “If you’ve got a problem with the way I do things then there’s the door! Walkthrough it at any time!”
He had said it loudly, he knew. Too forcefully. The old couple at the table next to them looked over, but he didn’t notice.
The boy looked up at his father meeting his gaze, his eyes filled with anger and tears. They stared at each other a moment, the boy’s lower lip trembling before he shoved out of the booth and ran out the door.
Watching him go, he leaned back in his seat and heaved a sigh as the boy’s thin frame exited the small diner.
He sat there a moment, unmoving, wondering how it had all gone wrong. One moment life had been as it should be, and the next it was all gone like the green in winter.
But this was not his fault. How could it be? How could he have known? He was not a mind reader. A psychic or a prophet. If the boy’s breakfast had offended him, he had only himself to blame. He said nothing when he had put the order in for him.
He raised his hand up and let his head fall into it, praying quietly that God might give him the wisdom to know the mind of a seven-year-old boy.
“We had one of those ourselves,” a voice said, interrupting the prayer.
He picked his head up. “What?” He asked, looking for the source of the comment.
“We had one of those,” the old woman at the table next to him said again through a wide smile, and then traced the path of the boy’s retreat with her finger. “He was fire in an oil can,” she said and barked a laugh.
The father turned towards her. “Your son was?” He asked.
“Ya, he was. He passed some years back, only thirty-three years old.” She looked at the old man sitting across from her and squeezed his hand. They shared a look between them that spoke to a bond filled with experience, heartache, and deep and unshakeable strength.
“I’m sorry,” he said and shook his head. “That’s hard.”
“Hard ain’t the word,” the old woman said, her smile gone. “I’m sure there’s a word that might describe it, but an ignorant old woman like myself surely don’t know it.”
“I’m sure I don’t either,” he said and opened his wallet for the loose bills tucked neatly inside it. He took a few out and placed them on the table.
“No,” the woman said as he stood to leave, “but you know the feeling. So does your boy. I can see it on your faces.”
He froze, standing above her, and said nothing. His chest seized up and the thought of the tin can sitting shotgun in his pickup popped into his head like a weed among flowers.
The turmoil in his mind must have shown through on his face, because the old man holding the woman’s hand said, “Honey, leave him be.”
“Oh hush up Stillwell, he needs to hear this.”
Her husband heaved a sigh and dropped his head in exasperation.
The woman turned back to him, still standing frozen, and said, “He never lets me talk. He thinks good Christian women should let the men do the talking, and sit at their sides all perfumed and demure.”
“You ain’t never worn perfume, June Lee!”
“Hush up Stillwell!”
He gave her a frosty look, then grabbed a piece of sourdough and began buttering it furiously.
Finding his voice, he said, “I need to go. You two enjoy your breakfast.” He nodded and took a step for the door, but before he had left the couple behind the old woman’s aged hand reached out and grabbed his forearm.
“Wait, dear,” she said, and he paused.
The woman looked up at him with dark olive eyes. There was love in them, but steel also.
“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but I had to tell you. When my boy died…” she paused for a moment and closed her eyes. When she reopened them, they were wispy with tears. “When our Bobby died, we split for a time, Stillwell and I. I couldn’t look at him no more. All I could see when I looked at him was our boy.”
Stillwell put down his butter knife and was looking at his wife intently.
“I ain’t proud of leaving, but that’s what I did. I thought it might help me get over the pain, get over my rage at God for what He’d done. But one-day Stillwell,” she nodded her head towards him, then turned and gave him a warm smile, “he showed up at my fortress of solitude, knocked on the door, and without a word pulled me into his arms. It didn’t take me but a moment to see what a fool I had been. I threw my arms around him and wept, and knew that there wasn’t no place to be but by his side.”
She released his forearm and reached out for Stillwell’s hand. When their fingers entwined they clutched at each other as a drowning man clutches at a rope.
“All this to say, don’t let those who have passed stand in the way of those still living, and when that boy reaches out for you, well, you just grab on and never let him go.”
He did not know if he was more enraged at this woman’s intrusion into his life or more grateful. Wasting no time to figure it out, he nodded and headed for the door.
When he was halfway through it and out into the overcast morning he paused and, without turning around, said, “I’m sorry about your son.” Then he was at the door of his truck where the boy was already sitting, his arms crossed, looking out the window.
* * *
It was a long walk to the lonely tree that was their final destination, and the clouds overhead were threatening rain at any moment. He could have driven this final stretch he knew, but, by the time they had pulled up to the old, moldering barn, he had not been ready for what must come next. So he had told the boy to follow him and took in his arms the shiny tin can that had sat between them since they had first left home.
The property was a large one. Twelve hundred acres of sprawling ranch land that had been in her family since before the turn of the century. When her great grandfather had first purchased it for a dollar an acre the price had almost broken him financially, but, it was said, he worked like a devil to keep it. By the time he died he had paid it off, and on his deathbed had looked at his loved ones and said, “A man indebted is a slave. I die knowing my children live freely.”
She had been the last of that line, except for the boy. She was an only child, and her father’s brothers had either died young or remained childless, so eventually, the land came to her. He had spoken to her of selling it once. Afterward, she didn’t speak to him for a week. He forgot the subject.
It had been the tree that made her keep it, he thought. Or what was underneath it at least, for it had been years since they’d come to this place. If life had not forced his hand, it would’ve been many years more.
But, they were here now. He and his boy, and there, fast approaching was the tree that had acted as their beacon since the beginning of their long journey from home. He looked down at his son, his anxiety increasing with every step, and saw his arms were crossed and his face dour.
He thought of breakfast, and of the old woman. Of the advice she had given. To take hold and not let go, but would his strength match that task? And would the boy even reach for him in the first place?
The crunch of boots next to him stopped suddenly. The absence of the rhythmic noise pulled him from his thoughts, and he realized they had reached their destination. He clutched the tin can tightly to his chest as he observed the thin, dying branches stretching out overhead, following their path slowly down to the trunk, and then to the dirt beneath it.
There, spread out among the roots, were graves. The story of his late wife’s heritage told in dirt and decaying granite. He looked at them all one by one, a foreign man trying to understand legends of a country he knew nothing of. Rain began to fall.
It was gentle enough at first, but soon it came harder. The drops large and heavy. His hands shook, and his heart ached, but the time had come.
“Your mother,” he said loud enough to be heard over the downpour, “asked that half of her was spread here, to be with the ones that made her who she was. And she asked that we keep the rest, to be with the ones who made her who she wanted to be. She asked that you do this.”
Slowly, he reached his hands out, the tin can pressed tightly between them, and offered it to the boy. He looked up at him, the tears in his eyes covered by the rain, and took the gift.
Carefully, the boy removed the lid, and then stepped further beneath the shadow of the tree, shaking the ash held within the can a little at a time over the ground. When he finished, he placed the lid back on, and stood still, his head bowed.
After a moment he said, “Come on, we need to go.”
The boy didn’t move.
“Come on!” He said again, but the boy only glanced at him, then looked away.
“I won’t play this game anymore!” He screamed in rage, tears threatening to pour from his own eyes now. “I’m going, stay if you want!” And he turned to walk away, but just then, something stopped him.
A bronco came into view, wild as the land around it, from beyond the hill behind the tree. It paused at the sight of them, surveyed them both, then looked back as if waiting for something. Its brown and white spotted skin glistened with the rain, and its mane flowed from its neck like a silken waterfall.
The animal began to rear its head and clamp its hooves until another horse appeared at its side from beyond the hill. A small colt of the same coloring. United, the two animals gave them one final curious look and then galloped away across the landscape.
He imagined he was one of them as he watched them go, unfettered by fear or heartache, then turned to his son to speak his mind. But the boy was already there, running towards him, his arms spread wide.
He knelt and caught him, pulling him close. Then picked him up, the tin can pressed between them.
As they made their way back to his old pickup he pictured the land after the rain, when new life sprung forth and all was green. He could not help but smile.