John can drive, but Alan’s the one driving. Kansas, wheat-fields gold below the horizon and the arc of the sky cerulean above. It’s summer, August and the family always makes this journey piecemeal, never everybody all together.
The last time the whole family had been together at their mother’s graveside had been before their father had gone missing. Without Jeff, the boys can’t quite seem to stand it, all five of them in the same place, grieving all over again.
So they make the pilgrimage two or three times a year, singly, or in pairs or triads. Scott and Virgil have an annual camping trip once a year and stop by then. One or the other of them will usually bring Grandma, usually around Thanksgiving. Gordon insists on going alone and no one bugs him about it. Brains has been once, with Virgil. He’d never met Lucille, but it seemed important to him to pay a quiet homage to the boys’ mother, after they’d become his second family. John always goes with Alan, always early in August.
The Tracys still own the farm, though what was formerly sixty acres has dwindled down to five, and the fields around it lie fallow and wild. Automated tractors prowl over the soft swells of the aureate hills, harvesting. There’s the whine of cicadas in the air, when Alan pulls the rented sedan up to the driveway of Grandpa Tracy’s old farm and parks. John has the keys in his bag, but they won’t spend the night inside.
Their mom is buried beneath a willow tree, on a low hill that looks over the pond behind the farmhouse. Alan and John don’t talk much as they unload the car, sleeping bags, a cooler full of food. John’s brought a book. Alan’s brought his telescope, formerly John’s telescope, formerly their mother’s telescope.
There’s a shed behind the house and without much discussion, the boys retrieve a pair of rakes, work gloves, garden shears, trowels. A few years ago during their springtime visit, Virgil and Grandma had put in a garden. It’s all annuals, nothing too rigid or formal, just something to brighten up the hill around the pale marble stone. Wild flowers have crept up from the base of the hill, gem-like and bright in the coarse summer grass.
Scott and Virgil have their hunting trip in the spring, a long ago ritual that their grandfather had started when they were boys, passed down from their father’s own childhood. John’s never been, he’d refused point blank the first time the invitation was offered, and Virgil had gone in his stead. No one’s quite sure which half of the trip is the detour any longer–the week spent camping at a lakeside in Northern Kansas, or the visit to their mother’s grave. Alan’s asked to go along before, but only once–and he’d been gently turned down. John had been the one who’d explained it; it’s something between Scott and Virgil, the same way the stars are between him and the youngest.
Alan chatters lightly while they work, pulling the most egregious weeds and trimming the shrubs and bushes to make room for new growth in the spring. Probably Gordon will be back around Christmas–the winter months always seem to call him here, though cold weather bothers him more than any of his brothers. John almost can’t imagine this place in the winter, bare and cold and lonely, the willow tree draped in ghostly white frost, its branches black and raw. It’s sadder still to think of Gordon all alone out here, bundled up with his own grief, something he’s never shared, nor wanted to. But it’s how he wants things, and he’s always been left to it. In the spring there’ll be a broken bottle of seawater, frozen until it's cracked, then thawed and melted into the earth, and a light scattering of sand from the beach at the base of the stone. It’s a funny little ritual of Gordon’s.
They’re hard at it til sundown, and then they picnic in the summer grass as night starts to fall and the lightning bugs come out, heralding the rise of the stars from the gloaming darkness of the eastern sky. John’s more animated than usual, Alan more subdued, but the pair of them have always balanced each other out. They talk about home and growing up and memories, John’s sharp clear ones and Alan’s vague muddles of scents and flashes of places, sensations. It’s melancholy but not quite sad. Not mournful any longer, but fond and bittersweet.
The moon is a waning crescent, and the sky darkens to the velvet black that John adores, as the stars cast the same sort of unchallenged light that they cast over Tracy Island. Crickets sing and tiny green frogs peep in the pond, and the wind in the wheat-fields and over the grass is cool. John and Alan are lying side by side on the northward slope of the hill, looking skyward, talk dwindling as midnight passes. Alan is the one who nudges John awake, around 2 AM.
Overhead the Perseids reach their peak, arcs of pure white across the heavens, and John and Alan watch them with their mother, the way they always have.