Yesterday, alone, I drove for many hours through the geography of my childhood, to the house where I was young. I wanted to see an old playmate of mine. But it was gone. Gone like time. Only a stump left. A fat round stump of concentric circles. And my memory of it.
I was a tomboy. I loved to climb trees, feel the rough bark rubbing against the fabric of my denim overalls, listen to the leaves rustling around my head like angels, and breathe deep the scent of the wood and the sap. I was comforted by these beings that nestled me in their arms.
When I was a little girl, a grand old sugar maple stood guard beside our house. Its green fingers tickled my bedroom window. My mommy told me the tree was a ladder to heaven. She said that if I climbed too high in the maple, I would find myself up in the sky and unable to return. I didn’t believe her, but I steered clear of that tree anyway, just to be on the safe side. Every day I would gaze at the tree, beckoning me like a gateway to a magical land.
The maple’s long branches swayed in the wind over the roof of our three-story house. During storms, it scratched against the clapboards like a wild animal trying to get in, and I would hide under the blankets where it was dark and safe, with Billy Boy, my flannel-skinned donkey. He was my favorite of all the friends who shared my room, having assumed that role after Poochy, a floppy-eared dog, was torn irrevocably in a fight with a baby sitter. Ripped nearly in half. Beyond even the surgical miracles my mommy could do with a needle and thread. Stuffing scattered across the carpet like dust balls under my bed. His cloth skin worn so thin by my love that there was nothing to hold him together any longer. I buried him under the maple so he could climb it to heaven.
Poochy’s replacement was named after Bill, our milkman. Bill wore a starched white uniform shirt, and his hair was slicked back into place. In the summer, he rolled up his sleeves so I could see the tattoo on his muscle. He would let me touch it, and I would giggle. It was a snake and a heart. I was never scared of snakes after that. His skin was smooth and surprisingly soft, pulled taut as he flexed. My mommy smiled at him and laughed at me when I poked at it with a tentative finger and then ran away tittering. One day I told my daddy about it. His face got red. He ordered me to go to my room. Bill never came anymore after that. My mommy bought our milk at the grocery store. It left a hole in my life. I missed loading the reusable quart bottles into the refrigerator, the glass thick and heavy and cold, with a smiling cow etched into its surface. I still do.
Yesterday, as I ran my hand across the top of the stump, its skin, like mine, older, dryer, and tired, I relived the summer day when a strange man came to see the maple. He parked his big green truck in our driveway, the contraption it dragged behind it waiting like some hungry monster wanting to be fed. I had seen such equipment chewing up branches at my friend’s house down the street, but was sure it was neither tough enough nor smart enough to take on our maple. As I peered out from behind my mommy’s leg, the tree man pointed at where the maple split into four trunks that grew apart like legs on a stool turned up-side-down. My brother used to tease me that they came together like my legs. He would perch in the crotch of the tree, jump up and down, and taunt me about what boys were going to do to me when I got older. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew I didn’t like it. One time, I had had enough, and I fought him over it. I could punch as well as any boy. I connected my little fist with his nose. After that, he didn’t tease me anymore.
The man told my mommy that something should be done about the part of the tree that arched up over the house, or else it would get too heavy and fall on the roof.
“And I wouldn’t want to be here when that happens,” he laughed. He chuckled when he talked, as if the worst possible news were something worth enjoying. “And we wouldn’t want anything to happen to your little ones.” Another jolly laugh, as if the mere thought of harm to me was enough to tickle his funny bone good. This must have something to do with being an adult, I decided, this seeing comedy in events that were full of terror. This must be a key to why grown-ups had all the control. This must be something I needed to investigate, to dig into, to understand. But how to go about it? It wasn’t something you could hold in your hand and turn over and examine or poke with a stick or squish with a rock or taste or smell.
Though it was only mid-morning, the air was hot and still, and the birds had given up singing for the day, leaving the job to the crickets and katydids, who were doing their best. Across the street, kids were dancing through a lawn sprinkler, screaming and singing.
My mommy was wearing the same thing she always wore on days like this, shorts and a sleeveless cotton blouse. She was pretty, even on a July day with no makeup and hair hanging in her face. She had perfect posture and long legs. Her tummy remained flat, her body strong. Perhaps I am confusing that day with a picture of her I keep on my dresser, but it is my favorite, one of the few I have, for she died soon after, and it is how I always think of her.
“Would it be better if I discussed this job with the man of the house?” the tree man said, with another of those laughs.
“He’s at work,” my mommy said. “Why don’t you tell me whatever it is that needs telling?”
“See, the thing of it is, on account of the potential expense involved, I’d want to make sure that he had all the facts straight.” He coughed and adjusted his hat and coughed again.
My mommy smacked dead a mosquito on her arm. She brushed off what was left of it and smiled at the tree man as bright as Christmas tree tinsel. “Well sir,” she said, and there was something threatening about her smile, as if under the tinsel, there were blue spruce needles ready to stick your finger if you weren’t careful. “I reckon you’ll have to take your chances with me anyhow.”
“Take my chances with you, ma’am?” The tree man lifted off his hat, pulled a red handkerchief from his back pocket, and wiped his forehead. His eyes were hunting all over the place—around the yard, across the roof, towards the neighbor’s house—as if he thought somebody was about to pop out of the bushes, like maybe we were going to have a surprise party for him or something. “Gonna be a scorcher, ain’t it?” he said, putting his hat back on.
“Where are my manners? How about a glass of cold water?”
“If it’s not too much bother.”
“Maddy dear, how about running inside and fetching a glass of ice water?”
And then my mommy’s face sort of all pushed together and I knew that meant she was coming up with an idea for something fun, some game or a new idea for dinner, and she said, real seriously now, to the tree man, “That is unless you might want to join me for a cold beer instead.”
I could see rings of darkness forming under his arms. My mommy looked as cool as the lawn sprinkler across the street.
“A cold beer might be real nice,” he said.
I raced inside and grabbed two bottles of beer out of the icebox. I loitered for a minute with the door open, letting the coldness pour over me. I flipped off the two bottle caps with the magnetic opener stuck to the door, the way she had taught me. When I ran back outside, the two of them were studying the tree. The man was gesturing at the four upside-down legs.
“Why thank you, little lady,” he said to me.
“Well, cheers!” my mommy said.
The two of them touched the necks of their bottles together. He took a quick gulp. My mommy tipped her head back and drank. She kept her eyes fixed on his while the beer gurgled and disappeared into her mouth. She gulped down the whole bottle in one long, elegant tilt of her head and then calmly held out the empty to me. The tree man stood there and watched, appearing kind of dazed, as if that tree had started talking. Then he lifted his bottle to his mouth and commenced pouring. He sucked and gasped, but he kept on swallowing, sounding like our old toilet when it flushed. When he came up for breath, he rubbed the spillage from his face with the back of his hand, trying, without much success, to cover up the belches bubbling loose like from a shook-up soda.
“Sweetie, be a good girl and go get us a couple more, would you?” my mommy said, her eyes still locked on the tree man like she was daring him to say no.
“Can I have a Coke?” I asked.
“May I have a Coke,” she corrected me.
“May I have a Coke?”
“Yes, go ahead. But be careful opening it. I don’t want no spilled Coke on my kitchen floor.”
I returned in a second with their beers and then dashed back into the kitchen to get myself a Coke. Bottle in hand, I strolled out into the yard, stopping every few steps to suck on the soda, savoring the sweetness on the ridge around the mouth of the returnable bottle.
My mommy and the tree man were laughing, clinking their bottles together.
“Here’s to your health,” he said and raised his bottle. They both drank.
“Okay, now tell me what you plan to do about our poor maple here, Dr. Joe. It is okay if I call you Dr. Joe, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. What the hell. Call me anything you want as long as you call me for dinner.”
That was the same thing my daddy always said, only he didn’t laugh all the time like it was the funniest thing he’d ever said.
“It’s not gonna hurt, now is it, Dr. Joe?”
“Hurt? Hell no. I’ll be gentle.” He pointed with his beer bottle. “We’ll have to trim back those branches over the house. That’s one thing. Now you see this here lead, that’s what we call a big old limb like this one here, that spreads off right from the base, like it thought it was gonna be a drunk, what am I saying, I mean like a trunk, but see this here tree don’t exactly have a main trunk, just these here four leads, all fighting over the main attention, you know, like four ol’ boys fighting for the attention of one lady. I’ll bet you know what that’s like. I’ll bet that’s a fact.” He chortled and my mommy smiled along. My mommy had two kinds of smiles. One kind of smile was for times like on her birthday when I made her toast and brought it to her in bed and you could tell she was really happy. The other kind of smile was for when she was trying to make you think she was happy, but she had something else on her mind, like when I showed her a picture I had made with my crayons and it wasn’t very good but she said it was anyway and I could tell she wasn’t even seeing it. The way she was smiling at the tree man was this second kind.
“We’ll trim back those old branches up there, and then we’ll have to wire this here lead to that one there, and then that ought to do it, ought to hold it back, keep it from splitting off and crashing down on that there pretty house of yours.” The tree man laughed as though the thought of a catastrophe befalling our house was the funniest thing yet.
“And then that would be it?”
“Yes, ma’am. Unless, you’d want to offer me another of those ice cold beers.”
“Maddy, sweetheart. Go grab us two more beers, would ya?”
When I returned with the beers, they were shoulder to shoulder beside his truck. He wrote on a paper attached to a clipboard, balanced on the frame of an open window, pointing at it with his beer bottle as he talked. My mommy’s hand was on his back, slowly massaging, her long fingers spread apart, her wedding ring glittering like the truck’s chrome bumpers. The tree man wasn’t laughing. She said something and tapped on the paper. He shook his head and held his palms up. Her grasp tightened on his shoulder. One finger traced down his spine to his waist and clasped onto a belt loop. Their faces were close together. She was leaning in to see the writing, her chest against his side. His arm rubbed against the front of her blouse.
They took the beers from me and drank, not bothering to toast anymore. He crossed something out on the paper, wrote over it, and gave it to her. She shook her head and pushed it back at him. After going back and forth like that a few times, she finally smiled and stuck her hand out for him to shake.
“Okay Joe,” she said. “So we’ll see you on Thursday next week.”
“Thanks for the beers. Maybe we’ll have one again on Thursday? After the work is done?”
“Maybe we will.”
She stood with a beer bottle in one hand, waving goodbye with the other. As Joe backed out of the driveway, her waving hand dropped down onto my shoulder.
“Do you like that man, Mommy?” I said.
She knelt down in the grass to face me. I smelled the beer on her breath. The children across the street were chanting a rhyme as they jumped rope in the sprinkler spray.
“That man is scum,” she said. “He’s trash. I no more like him than I like the garbage in the can.”
“You seemed like you like him. You kept drinking beers with him. You looked like you were having fun with him.”
“Maddy, dear, I just saved us twenty dollars. He’s going to do the tree work for twenty dollars less than he was going to charge us.”
“Because he likes you?”
“No. Because he thinks I like him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Men will do anything if they think you like them. God has given us two gifts. The first is our looks. The second is men’s stupidity. You put the two together and you can have anything you want. It’s like the apples on the tree in the back yard. They’re there for the picking. If you don’t, they’re only going to go bad, anyway. Drop to the ground and rot. So you might as well take advantage when you can.”
“Is Daddy that way? Is Daddy stupid, too?”
“Oh, Maddy, you’re a tough one. No. Daddy’s not stupid. Daddy is something else. Let’s not talk about Daddy right now.”
“What should we talk about then?”
“Oh hell, it’s too hot to talk. What do you say we go get you another Coke?”
When the tree man came back the next week, my mommy never came out of the house. She sent me to tell him she had a headache and to give him the money when he was done. He didn’t do much laughing. I brought him a beer, but he didn’t seem very pleased.
“Are you going to be like your mother when you grow up?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just like her.”
“Then Lord have mercy on us all. Lord have mercy.”
In the cool of the next morning, before anyone else was up, I climbed that tree, a chittering gray squirrel daring me every inch of the way. It was easy. The wire Joe had attached was my steppingstone. I felt it through the sole of my Keds.
Yesterday, I stood in the heat and stared at the stump. I miss that maple tree. I miss my mommy.