My mother donated the money necessary to send FLINT RANCH to the editor, so I thought up this little story as a gift of gratitude.
“I cannot decide,” Nick said with the air of the politician he could have been, “whether I agree or disagree with zoos housing critically-endangered species.” He looked up from the placard in front of the tiger enclosure, but the guest of honor was nowhere to be found. He pushed back his sleeve to check his Rolex. “What time is the fund-raiser?”
Thatch did not reply. He had his back to the empty enclosure and was gazing across the path toward the lions. Nick batted his arm. “Todd,” he repeated, “what time’s the event?”
“Six,” Thatch replied. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, but returned to staring. He wore a strange expression: sad eyes, but with a smile playing on his lips.
Recognizing the expression, Nick followed his gaze to find a family of five: mother, father, a boy, and two girls. He sighed; Thatch certainly wasn’t staring because of their mother’s shapely legs.
“We have ten minutes before we need to be at the banquet hall,” Nick said.
“I know.” But Thatch ignored his hint. He followed the family as they moved away from the lion enclosure (They made an appearance, albeit lazily), toward the zebras and giraffes. They boy and older girl ran ahead, their mother shouting admonishments, while the youngest – she could not have been more than five or six – clutched her parents’ hands.
The mother was tall and shapely, with short, curly hair, wearing shorts that showed off her legs. The father had a military bearing that defied his age. The girl was sprightly, with thick blonde hair that stuck out from the side of her head in a ponytail. Thatch followed them slowly, hands in his pocket, map tucked under his arm.
“You’ve got that look on your face,” Nick said.
Thatch looked at his cousin as if surprised to find him by his side. “What look?”
“The thinking-about-your-father look.”
Thatch furrowed his brow with a smirk. “I have a look just for that?”
“Oh, yeah,” Nick said. “I can recognize it a mile away. It means tonight’s banquet should be interesting. You tend to get extra heart-felt.”
Thatch barked a laugh. “Well…” he replied, but did not continue. He returned his thoughts to the three in front of him. Instead of the curly-haired woman and the military man, he saw a woman with ash blonde hair, wearing a plain denim dress, and a man wearing a darned tweed suit, his dark hair slicked-back with pomade. Between them would be a young, sandy-haired boy, tall for his age, but hopelessly skinny.
(No, that’s not how they would look…) He pursed his lips and wondered how his mother and father would have dressed had they been able to raise him together – as if Flint Ranch had never happened. Judy would have worn a simple, cotton sundress in defiance of her well-dressed upbringing. Wren… Thatch furrowed his brow. He had only ever seen his father in that tweed suit and mechanic’s coveralls (before the prison uniform, of course). He shook the image away. He imagined him wearing a collared shirt and khaki slacks, even though that felt strange as well. He would never deign to wear jeans. Certainly not the denim shorts like the man before him.
“Lookit!” the little girl cried, breaking away from her parents.
“Careful!” her mother cried.
“She’s fine,” her father said.
“She won’t be fine if she falls and breaks her skull,” she muttered.
They followed to where the children were pressed against the barrier, mouths wide in wonder.
“What is that?” Nick asked, swatting Thatch’s shoulder.
“It’s a quagga!” the little girl cheered.
“Quaggas are extinct,” her brother sneered. “It’s a oka-pie.”
Thatch snorted. An okapi had wandered close to the fence, tugging at the leaves of a plant that was not intended for its consumption.
Nick curled his lip. “It looks like a zebra and a donkey spent some–”
Thatch elbowed his cousin in the ribs, knocking the air out of him.
“It’s related to the giraffe,” the little girl told them, making her ponytail bob as she swung her head back toward the animal.
“Huh…” Nick replied, squinting up at it. “It does look like a giraffe.”
“Did you read that off a sign?” Thatch asked. He looked around, but couldn’t find one.
“No, I read it in a book.”
“Well, you’re very clever.”
“Only with animals,” she replied. “I’m going to be a zoologist.”
Thatch raised his brow. He hadn’t known what a zoologist was at twice her age. He smiled enviously at her parents.
“Are you scientists?” she asked, eyeing their tuxedos.
“Yes, we’re doctors.”
“And we’re running late,” Nick reminded him.
Thatch smiled tightly, reaching up to tug at the hair on the back of his head. He turned to her mother, once more curly-haired and lovely-legged. She was clutching the father’s hand.
“You have a beautiful family,” Thatch said.
“Thank you,” she replied with a funny smile. She was questioning his motives. He saw it often when he was caught admiring a family enviously. He sometimes even saw it when he mentioned he specialized in pediatrics.
Pulling the map from under his arm, he followed his cousin past the future-zoologist, her brother and sister, the not-a-quagga, and left his mother and father behind.