AMONG THE DANDELIONS
A ride would do. Fred’s fingers work their way around the brown and gray patches on Betsy's neck, her neigh a whisper that comforts the tremble in his aging hands. It was two years, four months, six days since he’d last saddled up. Tom had just returned to the Oklahoma countryside.
“I thought it was permanent this time,” Fred had said, his voice small.
“Maybe it’ll end before I have to head back,” Tom said.
The evenness in his tone told them both he was lying. Fred could always see through him—see through his ‘yes, I already finished my homework’ when he’d been playing his Super Nintendo game instead. See through ‘but Mom said I could’ when she hadn’t and wasn’t there to object. Fred gave Tom the evil eye back then.
Maybe it’ll end before I have to head back.
This went without response. No. It wouldn’t, Fred knew.
He uses a stepladder to saddle Betsy and to ease onto her back. She was Tommy’s American Paint. Fred sold his own mare the year before, using that money for his son’s burial. Age sneaks up on him faster these days anyway and he welcomes it. Betsy is all he needs. He feels her brace herself under his unfamiliar weight. But just like him, she hasn’t forgotten. Fred leads her out of the barn and into the acres of grass dulled beneath the silvery sky. The storm is inching in from the west. Threatening. That was how the news always dubbed it. But Fred shrugs it off. That’s what Tommy used to do when he was young, sprinting against the brisk wind to catch that last throw, only to beg for one more.
“We stay any longer and we’re goin a get struck by lightnin,” Fred would shout to him.
“Wait for the rain,” Tom always said, “Then we can go.”
Fred rides further away from the barn to nowhere. That used to be their routine, setting off in whatever direction they wished. Side by side. They stamped their paths into the dandelions and filled them with words. But he has no words worth saying this day. Instead, he listens to the old wooden fence creaking in the distance. He’d watched his fifteen year-old Tommy lift Stacie-Ann, the girl from school, onto the fence before sitting up there himself. And holding her hand, Tommy leaned in for his first kiss. What Fred thought was his son’s first kiss, at least. He had the talk with him that night. Less ‘birds and the bees,’ more ‘um’ and ‘well.’ Neither was prepared. Fred watches the blades of grass thrashing in the wind, thrashing like the mini stars and stripes flag on the SUV’s antenna as it drove up to the house. He had peered through the blinds at the two men in uniform as they stepped onto the front porch.
“Jesus Christ,” Martha had said.
Fred turned and stared at his wife—through her.
The silver gives way to a charcoal sky. Threatening? Almost, but it isn’t time yet. Betsy slows on her own, ears pricked, eyes fixed on the open field ahead and Fred wonders if she sees him too. Tommy stands amongst the dandelions, waiting, gazing up at the rain clouds. Broad-shouldered and tall, taller than Fred remembers with that high and tight haircut Fred never did like on him.
The gusts pick up and it begins to drizzle. Fred tugs softly on Betsy’s reins.
“Come on girl,” he says, steering the horse around, “Now we can go.”