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issue 45: November - December 2004 

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TREED
Benjamin Whitmer

  Three fingers whisky pleasures the drinker
  And moving does more than the same thing for me.
  Willy he tells me the doers and thinkers
  Say moving's the closest thing to being free.


               Billy Joe Shaver
              "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me"

I bought him that rocking chair. I picked it up in a Syracuse store that specializes in handmade Adirondack rocking chairs. There were about five hundred more handmade just like it: ash frames, maple back slats, no stain. Refined authenticity, or some such shit. This one had a knot in the arm that looked like a little face. A face with a long beard like, say, a real Adirondack mountain man who makes his own furniture.
      At least it fits him. I got the widest one they had. It’s the only chair I’ve ever seen him sit in that he didn’t make look like kid’s furniture. It’s not delicate, either. I made sure of that. He can club it, kick it, criticize it for not being made well. He can do anything he wants to it, but he won’t rock in it. At least not when I’m around. He sits straight up, rigid, his cigarette the only thing moving, rolling side to side in his face and now and then erupting in smoke.
      Until he starts coughing. Then his feet come off the deck and he sways helplessly back and forth on the rockers, hacking and spitting into his beard.
      I get a sudden urge to kick the chair out from under him. I know better, though. He doesn’t move much, but he can, and he outweighs me by an easy hundred pounds.
      "You can come on out," he says, loud enough I can hear him through the glass door.
      I slide it open and walk out on the deck. "You don't move much, Pops," I say, blinking over the yard at the low sun and taking a seat on the bench that runs around the deck. I make sure to sit in front of him, to his left: he’s blind in his left eye.
      He hands me his glass.
      I lift the bottle of anisette off his card table and pour it half full. I brought him the bottle. It’s his drink and he drinks it straight, out of a water glass. I’ve never known anyone else who drank it at all. "What do you do for drinks when I ain’t here?" I ask, passing him the glass.
      "I don’t feel near as much need to drink when you ain’t here," he says, ashing on the deck.
      I can’t tell if he’s really pissed off or just acting.
      I take a real look at the deck for the first time. I have to wonder how in the hell he finished it. His fingers are crooked from overwork and his knuckles are arthritic knobs.
      The house was three rooms when I was born. I’ve seen the pictures: a little lopsided shanty. Now it’s got studies and arches and round windows and gables. It’s got four bedrooms and two full baths. It’s a marvel and a mystery to me. I can’t hammer a nail in straight.
      He buttons up his flannel, one-handed.
      "You cold?" I ask. The sun’s setting, but it ain’t cold out yet.
      He shrugs. "Getting ready for it."
      "I forgot how chilly it gets up here," I say. "Even in the summer."
      "Feel free to leave anytime," he answers.
      There’s a dead tree in his neighbor’s yard that’s been painted baby-blue, top to bottom. He flicks his cigarette towards the tree, but it only makes it about a quarter of the way. There’s a whole pile of butts he’s only flicked about a quarter of the way. He fixes another cigarette in his mouth and gropes out a match.
      "Rhonda still coming around?" I ask.
      He nods.
      "She still with Harvey?"
      "They’re still married," he says, "and she still kicks him out every now and then to remind him of it."
      I grin. "That sounds familiar."
      "It should." He lights his cigarette and half his mouth grins maliciously. "Isn’t that why you’re here?"
      I feel my chuckle dissipate in the evening breeze. I shake my head. He’s pissed off for real. I can’t altogether blame him. I haven’t been home in a long time. "I’d rather not talk about it," I say.
      "I finished the deck," he says, watching me pour a glass of anisette for myself.
      "I noticed," I say, "it looks good."
      He takes a drink. "I was thinking about closing it in. If you’re going to be around, you could help out. Call it rent."
      "Be happy to," I lie.
      The sun lowers and we watch it. It’s a small town and when the sun lowers kids get called back to their houses and doors start slamming up and down the street. It’s tiring. I keep us stocked in drinks. Then the sun’s gone, and it’s cold out. I get up and grab my gym bag out of the kitchen.
      "You can use the phone if you want to give her a call," Pops says.
      I pull a sweatshirt out of the bag and slip it over my head. "I’m okay."
      He nods. For a while. "You sure she didn’t kick you out?"
      I sit back down and pick at a scab on my knuckle. Punched a wall last week. Which didn’t impress the holy hell out of anyone.
      "You just left?" he continues.
      I get a corner of the scab up. "Yep."
      "No fight?"
      I shake my head. "I left her a note."
      He’s just about to strike a match for another cigarette. He stops. "You did what?"
      The scab starts bleeding on the side I’m picking. I switch to the other side to see if I can come from the opposite direction. "Left her a note."
      "That’s no good," he says.
      The other side starts bleeding too. "Should’ve had it out with her, huh?"
      "You sure as shit shouldn’t have left her a note."
      "She’s got lots of pictures," I say. "She can burn those." There’s a blood rim around the scab and it’s not coming loose. I leave off picking it—it’s bad symbology anyway—and rock back in my chair. There’s a shitload of stars. Even as overcast as it is I can see a hell of a lot more stars than I could in Syracuse. I take a drink and shiver again, but this time from the anisette.
      "You wanna hear some music?" I ask.
      "Sure," he answers, "get the radio."
      I get up and almost fall down. "Where’s it at?"
      "Next to the bed."
      I shuffle my way over his hardwood floor and up the stairs to his bedroom. I locate the radio under a pile of his dirty clothes. It’s an old gray work radio, spackled and paint-swiped. I grab it and head back for the deck.
      Then, just inside the sliding door, I stop and damn near drop it.
      "I’m Grace," I hear her say.
      I swing back away from the door and up against the wall. My stomach punches right up into my throat. I can’t breathe.
      "I thought you might be," he says. "I’m Pops."
      I arch my neck so I can see her through the door. She’s standing on the first step of the deck, wearing a long earth-tone dress and looking red in the face. I grit my teeth.
      "Sit down," he offers.
      She nods, clumsily. "Thank you," she says to him, and sits down on the bench, right in front of him.
      "Like a drink?"
      She nods again. "Sure."
      He rolls his head around and says to me, "bring another glass."
      I pull a glass out of the dish rack and step out on the deck, taking in a deep breath. "Hello," I say, without exhaling.
      "Hello," she answers. Her eyes are swollen and watery. She’s a mess.
      He holds out his glass. I set the radio down behind him. I fill his glass, her glass, my glass. "You going to sit down?" he asks.
      I sit down about three feet from her. I can smell her shampoo. Apples.
      "And set up that radio," he continues. "I want to hear some music."
      I plug the radio in and power it up. Waylon Jennings comes out, singing "Drinking and Dreaming," sounding very rough and very sad.
      She looks up at me. Her eyes are red. "I wanted to make sure you had somewhere to go," she says. "I couldn’t think of anywhere else you’d be."
      "And you’re welcome to be here any time," Pops says to her.
      "Thank you," she says, smiling a little at him.
      "Think nothing of it," he says, nodding resolutely. He takes a drink.
      I take a drink, too. A big one. And no one says anything for a couple minutes.
      Grace breaks the silence. "May I use your rest room?" she asks Pops.
      "Help yourself," he says. "It’s step inside on your left."
      When she closes the door behind her, he looks at me fully. "You’re an idiot."
      I shake my head and drink. We don’t talk. That doesn’t bother him.
      When she returns, Pops asks her, like he just thought of it, "how’s come I never met you?"
      Her smile’s not so little this time. She’s only had a couple sips of the anisette, but it doesn’t take much with her. She looks at me. "Ask him."
      They both look at me. I shrug and stare at the ground.
      "He’s embarrassed by family," Pops says. "Always has been."
      She throws one of her legs over the other and eases back, her elbow cocked and her drink dangling from her wrist. "By all kinds of family," she says, her eyes glowing lightly in her head. When she’s drinking she likes innuendo. And her eyes glow every time she says something that pleases herself.
      I should write her a letter of all the things that please her with herself. I should send it to her with a letter bomb. I take one of Pop’s cigarettes off the card table and light it, grinning.
      She stamps her heel down on the deck. "This is a beautiful deck," she says to Pops.
      "Thank you," he says, "I just finished it."
      "Did you do the paneling inside, also?"
      "I did."
      "It’s beautiful," she says, nodding. "Absolutely beautiful."
      "Cherry," he says, "I dug the planks out of a house I was renovating."
      "I didn’t think it was a stain," she says.
      He snorts. "No," he says. "Cherry."
      She’s watching me out of the corner of her eye while talking with Pops. "Did he tell you about the cabin?" she asks him.
      He shakes his head.
      "My grandfather left me three acres up by Cranberry Lake," she says, bringing her foot up onto the bench, smoothing her dress down so it hides her blue panties. Her modesty can be endearing. "We were going to take a summer and build a cabin."
      "Why didn’t you?" he asks.
      She rests her chin on her knee and looks at me. "We were going to start this summer."
      Pops flips his cigarette at the blue tree. It lands in the pile. "He always would find any way he could to get out of work."
      She giggles girlishly. That one stopped being endearing a long time ago.
      Somebody walks up and stops in the yard, standing just off the deck in the shadows. A woman somebody, I think. She blows a stream of smoke. "That better not be Steven up there," she says.
      It’s Rhonda. She wobbles a little, smoking a long-filtered cigarette. "What’s the matter," she says to me, "you don’t remember me? You speechless?" She takes the step up onto the deck: big gold earrings, deep wrinkles puttied over with foundation, an unwholesomely red smile at seeing me. I meet her and give her a big hug.
      "So where’n the hell have you been, honey?" she asks me. "We were worried sick about you."
      "I’ve been around," I say, handing her a glass of anisette.
      She slaps me on the knee. "Around where, you little shit?"
      "Around Syracuse," Grace interrupts, "but not around any more."
      "And who’s that?" Rhonda asks, squinting near-sightedly at Grace. "Is that the wife?"
      "Good question," Grace says. "I’d like to know the answer."
      "Ex," I say. "Common law."
      "Already?" Rhonda says.
      I smile. Grace doesn’t. Rhonda smokes for a second, glancing first at Pops, who is looking very satisfied, then at Grace. "Are you from around here, honey?" Rhonda asks her.
      "I’m from Chicago," Grace answers. "But my grandfather used to live up by Cranberry Lake. When I was a girl I spent summers with him."
      "Chicago," Rhonda repeats. "Syracuse must seem pretty small to you then."
      "It’s small," Grace says. "but nice. Nice and laid-back."
      Rhonda tosses her cigarette limply over the deck. "Never seemed laid-back to me."
      "When you get used to Chicago," Grace says, "most things seem laid-back."
      Rhonda picks at her sweater. "What do you do in Syracuse?"
      "I’m a technical writer. For a medical supply packaging company," Grace answers. "And I’m a poet," she adds.
      I’d been wondering which one she’d put first. Usually it’s the poet. She sips her drink and looks far away poetically, then returns with a weighty poetic glance at me. "Anything can be well written, and anything well written can be beautiful," she says.
      If it was snowing I’d write my name in piss. Maybe rub her nose in it.
      "How about you?" Rhonda asks me. "What are you doing?"
      I shrug.
      "He doesn’t do things," Pops says, ashing. "Doing things is beneath him." Grace pretends to hide a malevolent smile.
      "Did I ask you, you old shit?" Rhonda snaps at Pops. She fiddles with one of her earrings for a minute, and then chuckles to herself, flicking her bloodshot eyes at the old man. "Did I tell you what he did?" she asks me.
      I shake my head.
      She toys with her left earring, smoking her cigarette and looking at Pops like she’s waiting for something from him. He just shakes his head and clenches his jaw. "I came over here last weekend to cook him lunch," she says.
      Pops shifts uncomfortably. "Rhonda, shut the hell up."
      "I was cooking," she continues with a fierce look at him, "and he called me out on the deck, saying he wanted to tell me something." She pauses and takes a long drag of her cigarette. "And you know what he did?"
      "Shut up," Pops says again.
      "He took out a twenty dollar bill," she says, "and told me he’d give it to me if I showed him my titties."
      I look at her, twice. "He what?"
      She makes a motion like she’s lifting up her shirt. "Twenty bucks," she says, "and all I had to do was show them."
      I hold back a grin. "Did you tell Harvey?"
      "Hell no," Rhonda says, "Harvey’d have done something stupid."
      Pops stares off the deck grimly. "I doubt that."
      "No you don’t," Rhonda says sharply.
      Pops keeps staring. He can look pretty scary when he wants to. Right now he’s putting everything into it. His jaw muscles are rolling around. And they’re the only thing on him that’s moving.
      Rhonda pokes him in the side. "You ain’t talking now?" She lights a cigarette. "Ain’t no fun is it?" she asks him.
      "What the hell are you talking about?" he says.
      "You know exactly what I’m talking about." She looks at him for a minute. "I got a question for you, you old shit."
      He clears his throat. "What?"
      I wait. Grace waits. Rhonda winks at me and smiles. "What," she asks, "would you have given me to touch them?"
      I laugh out loud.
      He shakes his head slowly. "I’ll give you a kick in the ass."
      Rhonda lashes her foot out and gets him lightly in the knee. "And there’s one for you," she says.
      Grace props her elbow on her thigh and rests her face in her palm, watching them. She’s getting drunk. When she gets drunk her eyes get big and close together.
      Pops finishes another cigarette and flicks it at the blue tree.
      "What do you have against that tree, Pops?" I ask.
      "It’s blue," he says.
      "He’ll piss on it before the night’s over," Rhonda says. "Can’t barely walk, but he’ll make sure he walks over and pisses on that tree."
      "It’s Mexicans in that house," he says.
      "They ain’t Mexicans," Rhonda says, "They’re Indians. You ain’t never seen a Mexican."
      "They’re the same color as Mexicans," he says.
      "Jesus Christ," Rhonda says, "You’ll say any damn thing that comes into your head, won’t you? They ain’t Mexicans, and you’re an old bigot."
      "I ain’t a bigot," he returns, "I got nothing against them but that their tree’s blue."
      I finish my glass and try to get together the heart to stand up. "I’m gonna hit the bathroom," I say, and make it through the sliding door without incident, only stumbling a little.
      "That’s my boy," I hear Pops say behind me, "knee-walking."
      I head to the upstairs bathroom. I need some space between me and them. I lift the lid and piss unsteadily. My urine’s that bright orange that means I haven’t been drinking near enough water.
      Checking out the color of my urine, I end up pissing up the side of the sink. It’s the motor mechanics, I think, noting how clearly I’m thinking.
      I hear the door slide open and slide closed and I can hear them talking. They’ve moved inside. I put my ear against the door, but can’t make out anything but a drone. So I take Pops’ water glass off the sink and put the rim against the door and my ear against the bottom.
      Nothing.
      I scan the bathroom. How the hell can I get out of here?
      The window. I open it and crawl out on the roof. I’m on the flat plane over the front porch. One of the windows from my room faces out on this same roof; when I was a kid I used to sit out here and think.
      I’m getting to feeling kind of melancholy, just like a kid. Feeling like I got a bone out of place, or an extra muscle pulling against me. Like if I take a step without paying attention, my ankles’ll give and my feet’ll turn on their sides.
      I’m getting to feeling kind of poetic.
      I wonder what Mom’s doing? Last I heard from her she was on a whale-watching cruise; she’s done a lot of that sort of thing since leaving Pops. I got a postcard, I think. I picture her with an iceberg in the background, wearing an undyed wool sweater, a light smile on her face, her gray hair wet with ocean air. Then I realize I’ve got no idea what color undyed wool is.
      I stand and look down. I’m about thirty feet off the ground. There’s gutters all around the edge: I couldn’t hang and drop if I wanted to.
      There’s a tree in the yard, about six feet from the roof. Its trunk is a brown silhouette backlit by a streetlight.
      If I can make the jump, I can slide down, skinny around the house, push my car out of hearing range and get the hell out of here.
      I step back to the bathroom window and count out four long steps to the edge. I swing my arms around behind me and stretch. No more than five feet to the tree. Probably more like four. Even if I hit it at an angle it’s probably only a couple more feet down to the next branch; I can just wrap my arms around the trunk and slide down. I count off the steps again. Then I jump.
      There’s a branch. A short, snapped-off branch right where I hit the trunk. It catches me in the chest and knocks the breath out of me. Then breaks off and falls away.
      Somehow I get myself wrapped around the tree trunk and slide. Until I hit a much larger branch. Then I come to a real hard stop.
      It takes a couple minutes to get my breath. Then another couple to not puke. I touch my shirt and it’s wet, so I touch under it. I’m bleeding in a dull, thumping trickle out of a puckered little hole in the hollow of my chest.
      There’s nothing below me. One branch about seven feet down— just far enough that if I dangled above it I couldn’t reach it with my tiptoes. I look up. Nothing within ten feet. I make the mistake of trying to shift my weight. My chest explodes in pain.
      "Steven?" Grace calls softly from below me.
      I have to remind myself not to answer. Then I see her in the yard, backlit by the house lights, her brown dress wandering around her body in the cool breeze. She looks beautiful. And perfectly capable of finding a ladder.
      "Steve," she calls, her voice just above a whisper, "are you in that tree?"
      I hold my breath.
      "What are you doing up there?" she asks.
      "Just thinking," I answer, careful to keep my voice normal.
      She sits down cross-legged on the lawn. "I’ve been doing a lot of that." She pulls a blade of grass and strips it down the middle. "Can we talk?"
      I don’t answer.
      "I could come up there," she says. "Or you could come down."
      "I can’t come down," I say.
      She stands slowly, dropping the torn blade of grass. "Then I’ll come up." She circles the tree and makes a couple of valiant hops. The lowest limb is well out of her reach. "How did you get up there?"
      "You really have to jump," I say.
      She hops after another limb and misses it. It’s a good two feet over her head. "I don’t think I can make it," she says.
      "Get Pops’ ladder out of the garage," I suggest.
      "A ladder?" She looks at me.
      "We need to talk," I say quickly.
      "Okay," she says, taking a step towards the house.
      Then she stops.
      She looks up and down the tree. She looks at the porch roof. She looks right at the open bathroom window.
      She slaps grass off her hands, her forehead puckered in indecision. I hold my breath, trying to will her to just get the fucking ladder.
      She turns and walks to the house.
      I wait.
      I hear the sliding door open and close.
      Her car starts up. The engine revs, hums, pulls away.
      I keep waiting, wishing I could turn my head without feeling like I’ve been kicked in the chest. Wishing I could move my cramping legs. She had to have told them where I am.
      The neighbor’s dogs start barking, howling. They know I’m up here. I reach in my jeans pocket for something to throw at them. If I can get them really going, maybe somebody’ll come out to check on them.
      I pull out a bottle cap. But the movement gets me wobbling dangerously on my perch, and I almost lose my hold. I drop the bottle cap and grab onto the tree.
      That’s when I understand that I’m not going anywhere.
     

Benjamin Whitmer 2004

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author bio

Benjamin Whitmer is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has published stories in Oxygen, The Lullwater Review and The Redneck Review of Literature, among others. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado with his wife and daughter.
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issue 45: November - December 2004

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