By Morrigan Jonsdottir
Tom was one year younger than the century. This allowed him to miss WWI, being just seventeen at the onset of 1918. He still could have gone, but he had no idea how he could leave the farm for the indefinite period that the enlistment would require. For a while, he wondered if he had missed out on a great adventure. But later, after speaking to a couple of local boys who had gone, he became convinced that he had made the right decision.
For the most part, neither him nor his wife June had ever really left the farm. A farm a few miles South of Oxford Kansas. There had always been too much to keep him there and it was too hard to get away. They had managed a trip to the Century of Progress in Chicago back in 1933, shortly after their marriage. A sort of honeymoon for the couple with Tom's brother Elmo caring for the animals and running the irrigation for twelve days. They had rode the train to Chicago, seen the exhibit and taken a boat out onto the lake, to a point where no shore could be seen. Something Tom always remembered and would remark upon all the rest of his life.
There had also been trips to Wichita to see medical specialists and several trips to Kansas City to visit their son and his family. That is, before their son passed on in a car wreck. Tom had rebuffed offers by his wife to spell him with the driving, wishing to tell the guys back in the Oxford Tavern that he had driven all the way to Kansas City by himself. His wife knew that was what was going on and she chided him over it.
The most divisive event of their lives had been June going to visit her sister in Los Angeles without Tom. She had asked him to go and he had responded that he could not get away. So in 1935 she went by herself. Tom had never really forgiven her for this, but their son was born shortly thereafter and this precluded an extended break in affections.
The farm was nice river bottom land, owned in common with his brother Elmo. But there had never been enough land to really support the two families. So they had resorted to truck farming, growing watermelons, tomatoes and cantaloupe. Selling most of their produce at a produce stand on the land. This had been successful and everyone in Oxford made trips to the farm to buy eggs and produce.
But now, there was no farming. Just a garden. The land was leased to a commercial outfit and the fences that had been in place for a hundred years had come down. There was now one gigantic field farmed with heavy machinery. Only his house, his brother's house across the way, and the barn, now a garage, remained.
He now spent most of his time sitting in the shade, on the back steps of the house. Watching the land. Waiting for a dust devil in the afternoon or the rabbits in the evening. The concrete steps were poured in 1953. The original steps had been wood, never meant to last and very rickety. The house itself was a small oil field shack. A house trailer of the the 1930's. Again, something never meant to last, but something that had lasted most of Tom's life with a little maintenance.
He recalled how he, his son and his brother had built the form for the steps one Saturday morning and then filled it up with rocks. They had then used a borrowed one cubic foot mixer to mix the buckets of concrete to finish filling the form. His son's name was still inscribed on the edge of the top stair with the year “1953”.
Funny, but his son had been the first to go. A head on with another car on a one lane highway while coming back from a sales meeting in Eastern Kansas. Then his wife, the first cancer case that anyone in her family could remember. She had received radiation treatment for acne back in 1912 and this was suspected to be the culprit. Then his wife's family and his brother were gone. The rest of his family had been gone for years. He still saw the grand kids once in a while, but not often. And he had little in common with them. Engineers and bankers working on the coasts.
He was 86 now and he felt he was still in pretty good shape. His hip bothered him almost everyday, but he still got around. And he was often out of breath. To the point that he would need to just sit and breath deeply for a minute. The doctor had prescribed oxygen, but he wasn't going to walk around with that thing, and that hose on his nose. His great regret was that the Oxford Tavern had closed a decade or so ago. He would have liked to drive into town and have a beer with the other old timers.
Baggot's Drug store too. That had been a nice place on the main town intersection. Kitty-corner from the Oxford Bank, which was also gone. He'd spent a lot of time in Baggot's. Talking to the owner, picking up little things he needed at home, having ice cream with his wife and checking out the magazines.
But most stuff was gone now. Gone or changed. Even the newspaper had folded.
He first saw the ghosts one evening as he sat on the steps a little later than usual. He had noticed that the stars didn't seem as bright these days, and he had come out that night to be sure. He recalled back in 1962 when his grandson of about seven or eight had excitedly come into the house and pulled him outside to see the stars. The kid had grown up in Kansas City and had never seen the night sky on a farm, or at least not noticed it until now. They had stood and looked at the milky way, something the kid had never seen before. The stars had been so bright they almost had color. But they no longer looked that way. And Tom wondered if it was his eyes, maybe cataracts, or perhaps the brighter lights from Wichita obscuring the night sky.
He was sitting in the dark listening to the crickets and toads in the cool evening, and watching the fireflies. Somewhere in the middle of he yard, he suddenly saw the outline of a buffalo. He thought it a marvelous trick on the eyes by the shadows, but then it moved. It began walking South. And then there were many more, all lumbering slowly to the South across the leased fields. They didn't disturb the grain growing there, but he could see them as they crossed the yard in the dark. There were no tracks and no sound. It took hours for the herd to pass.
He then saw nothing more for a week. But then one night, the herd of buffalo was back, this time wandering North. The moved around obstacles such as the truck when possible, but otherwise simply moved through the fences as if they weren't there.
The next night he saw a group of five Indians. Real Indians, almost naked with leather moccasins tied to their feet. Their long hair held back with head bands and with no other decoration. They didn't carry bows, they carried atlatl and throwing lances, with long chipped points. Buffalo hunters. They ignored him as they moved North behind the herd.
Tom then saw nothing for another month. He had sat up late each night watching, even though this had upset his system. But he began to find the long evenings on the steps, with the stars, the fireflies and the night song to be pleasant.
Then old Zipper came into the yard. Not the 20 year old, crippled and half blind dog that he remembered, but a young Zipper who bounded up to him and sat panting with happiness. And then old Popeye came too. His missing paw restored and young like Zipper. Both dogs milled about Tom in greeting. Something to the North then attracted their attention and they bounded off. As Tom had seen them do years before.
Tom awoke one morning planning to go to Winfield for groceries. Eight miles down 160 in the truck. He'd been putting off the trip, but he was about out of almost everything. But somehow he just never got showered and dressed to go that day. He just felt slow. The same thing the next morning. Being on his feet for more than a few minutes caused distress. That was the only way he could describe it. Not pain, and not nausea, just a horrible tiredness that stopped him cold.
He finally made it to the store and did his shopping by leaning on the cart. Standing in the check out line was difficult for him and caused him to break out into a hard sweat. He was ill, but not in a way he recognized. Nothing like he had ever felt before. He began spending most of his days in his living room easy chair and most of his evenings on the back porch. Moving about as little as possible.
In the third week he reached up to switch off a light fixture above his desk and blacked out. He woke up on the floor, thankfully unhurt. Just a little sore. But the blackouts then came more often. Once on his way to the bathroom and once trying to wash the dishes. Fortunately, again he was never seriously hurt. He debated going to Winfield and seeing the doctor about this, but somehow didn't care enough to get out of the easy chair.
That night, while sitting on the back porch steps after dark, watching the stars and fireflies and listening to the night song, his wife June came around the corner of the house. Right at the spot where he his brother and his son had dug the well back in 1952. He could smell the moist earth of the farm and the green plants in the hot night.
His wife stood before him and said, “Tom, it's time to go”.
Tom could only stare. She was thirty years old and in the dress that she had purchased in California.
A moment later, his son rounded the corner of the house and stood before him.
“Dad, you've never been anywhere. We're going to take you to a new place, a nice place. And everyone's waiting for you there.”
Somehow it seemed right. And Tom rose to join them. As he rose, he noticed that the pain in his hip, that he had grown accustomed to, wasn't there anymore. His hip felt fine, and he had forgotten what this was like. As he stood, he expected the weakness he had begun to feel over the past few weeks, but it didn't come either. He felt strong and ready to walk.
“This way Tom”, said his wife. And the three of them began walking North.
Read more stories at https://thedreamtigers.com/stories
Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/harimauimpian/
Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thedreamtigers