The envelope sits on the island in the kitchen, in the circle of yellow light from the overhead lamp. It is addressed to my son. I look at it, a sandwich in one hand, with the dog we got for him in second grade sitting at my feet, brown eyes hopeful.
She was a puppy then, leaping and squirming at his small feet until he fell to the ground laughing, trying to hold her in his soft and boyish arms. She has minded us all, always knowing who is most in need of her, settling quietly beside us for comfort. Now she is old. Grey fur has replaced the silky black around her eyes and runs in a thin strip down her nose. It’s hard for her to follow my son in the mornings when he gets up, and some mornings she just doesn’t, content to watch him stagger around the house, make coffee, gather his books. Sometimes he still forgets to close the door.
I give her the last bit of the sandwich, brush off my hands, and wipe the counter. She lays down on the floor in the blanketing silence. I pick up the envelope, feel the weight of it. He’s already gotten one of these. That one was thin and light, and I didn’t want to give it to him. It was from a long-shot school. He is a good student, but not a great one. He ripped it open, excited, then scanned it quickly. His face sank into disappointed lines. I wanted to cry, but didn’t.
“That’s why we sent out several applications. It’s okay. The others aren’t back yet.”
He nods. I touch his back. His shoulder blades are above my head now.
“I know. I’m fine.”
Parts of him are closed off to me now, though I can read him better than he gives me credit for. I know he watches politics, sees war looming, and fears for his friends who are preparing for military service. His best friend shines with patriotism, in the way only young men can. At 17, he’s already been down to the army office. They’re all just waiting for graduation.
Still, the envelope sits. It’s heavy with good news, but I don’t want to give him this one, either. It’s selfish, to hold this last thread of his boyhood. I could have texted him at lunchtime and told him it’s here, and he would tell me to open it and tell him. But I set it here, in the kitchen, and turn my back to it, like the body at a wake. I putter around the clean kitchen, wiping spotless counters, and watch the clock.
At 5, I take the envelope and the dog, and go sit on the porch. It’s a golden day. The cows across the street have calved, and one cow munches grass while her newborn trips and dances around her in the failing light, hooves flying wildly. Her mother seems decidedly unimpressed. I scratch the old dog behind the ears. This is one of her favorite parts of the day, when she and I sit together on the porch, watching the cows, me scratching her back.
She is half asleep when the sound of the his car’s engine winds around the mountain road, and the brakes squeak at the bottom of the driveway. She perks up, stretches. It’s a long driveway. There’s time, and, in any case, she can no longer hurry. She yawns, stretches again, then trots down the steps to meet him. He’s got earbuds in, but he pulls them out to rub her head and speak to her. Finally, he looks up.
“Hey, kiddo. I have something.”
I hold the envelope out to him. He looks at it, but his face doesn’t brighten this time. Having been disappointed once, he is cautious. He examines it, turns it in his hands.
“Open the damn thing already.”
“It’s just another letter.”
It isn’t. Nothing could be less true. I just shoot him a look. He opens it, hands me the envelope, scans the print. Both hands grip the sides. He reads it again. I have to smile, as he goes for the third time, as if he thinks those words cannot be on that page with his name on it.
“It says I’m in.” He is still staring at it.
“Congratulations, college boy.”
“Yes. It’s real. You did it. Congratulations.”
He looks down at me, sitting on the steps. The dog senses his rising excitement and begins to circle him, tail wagging. It’s an effort for her. He shows her the letter, and she snuffles it.
“I did it, old girl. I did it. Mom, I did it.”
I don’t want to cry, but I do. He reaches for me, trips, spins around me, squeezing me. He can lift me off the ground now.
“You did, kiddo. I’m so proud.”
He leans back, looks at me. I remember his infant blue eyes, wide and curious, the small squirming body I held in my arms, and the intelligent ocean blue of the schoolboy who pushed my embraces away. When the storms of adolescence struck, his eyes flashed slate blue as he screamed his rage at me, and now, they are quiet pools of azure, looking down, concerned for me and my looming solitude.
“Love you, Mom. I’ve got to go tell everyone.”
I nod and sit down on the steps. He’s going to need a few minutes.
“Call your father first. Let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll go out to celebrate.”
He leaps up the porch, skipping the stairs. The dog gets up, follows him across the porch. She stops, turns. He holds the door open to let her in, calls to her. Slowly, she turns away from him and trots back to the stairs, settling beside me with a sigh. He shrugs, closes the door. His voice tumbles through the walls as he paces, laughing, shouting out his victory.
The old dog puts her head in my lap, and I’m glad we don’t have to speak. She and I sit together on the steps, watching the sunset. I scratch her back. We watch the cows. The sun settles in behind the mountains.