“You know, when I was a little boy, I lived on a farm,” my dad said after taking a bite of his oatmeal.
I looked up at him with a dribble of cereal milk slipping down my chin, “You did? What did you do?”
“Well,” he started, “I got up every morning, put on my cowboy boots, and walked out to the muddy pen where we kept the pigs.”
I frowned, “Ew, I bet they smelled gross.”
He laughed, “Yeah. It did a little, but they were always happy to see me. Grandma always got so mad when I splashed in the mud with the pigs. She would grab a hickory stick and chase me down. It was worth it though.”
He smiled and took the last bite of his apple cinnamon oatmeal. After a few moments, his smile faded. He stood up, grabbed both of our empty bowls, and took them to soak in the sink. He looked out of the small window like he was searching for something.
He turned to me with his smile once more, “Hey! Do you wanna’ watch a John Wayne movie together?”
“This movie is called The Shootist. Did you know it was John Wayne’s last film?”
“Oh wow, I had no idea,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s ironic how he plays as a famous gunslinger who is dying of cancer because in real life, he was actually dying of cancer. He died less than a year after the film was released”
When John Wayne pulled out his revolver, I saw the excitement in my dad’s eyes. The eyes that yearned for action and adventure. The ones that longed for the wild of the west, wishing for whipping tumbleweeds and loose dirt under boots and spurs. The ones that want fast horses, chasing bullets, and whiskey by a fire under the moonlight. But his eyes were tired, just like John Wayne’s. I snuggled into his chest as we lied on the couch. He grabbed my hand, and I felt the roughness of them. They were rough like the men chewing tobacco and starting saloon fights, the men ranching cattle months at a time, and the men working all day for their family. They were dry and cracked like the earth under horse clops and covered wagons⸺ my very own cowboy.
I walk to my dad’s shrine in the hallway and place my hand on his urn, stroking the black metal where he now rests. Next to his urn, his framed picture. The picture stares at me with its bright, blue eyes and long beard. I can hear his laugh in my head. Near the shrine is his white cowboy hat and bolo tie. I pick up his hat and trace its brown brim. It tips to the side when I set it on my head. A hat I will never fill. I wish he were here to wear them again. To wear the empty slippers forgotten by the front door. To watch John Wayne movies with me. To sit in the vacant chair at the head of the dinner table. I so long to feel his rough hands once more.
I hope he is off somewhere riding horses and chasing outlaws. Or drinking whiskey and singing My Rifle, My Pony and Me from Rio Bravo. Or chewing tobacco and breaking bottles over some guy’s head. Or even feeding pigs and splashing in the mud on his grandmother’s farm.
“The sun is sinking in the west
The cattle go down to the stream
The redwing settles in the nest
It’s time for a cowboy to dream.”