| The Most Beloved Tree in North
It stands nearly twenty feet high, although it has reached higher in better days. The tree, a walnut, has none of its original branches; they were removed early on and replaced with the formerly prolific members of a cherry tree that proceeded, all of them, to wither. Those branches were replaced by other branches from fruit and nut trees of dozens of varieties, many of which are not recommended in zone 2, where a relative lack of precipitation and long winters do not offer much to the more fragile or temperamental species. That is to say: grafting was never going to solve any problems.
And so it is that Archibald Parmer, the only son of William, has found himself in an awkward situation. He has become the necessary protector of a tree that his grandfather planted, that his father transplanted, and that his own college education cannot explain. Because Archie knows something about botany and he knows that there is no way this tree should be alive. It is not a pretty thing: it is gnarled and scarred; it is the result of overzealous pruning and grafting followed by years and years of bad luck: early freezes, industrial pollution, a drunk driver and his pick-up truck. It is not the stuff of postcards. And add to the unfortunate trials of this pathetic heirloom that it is now missing a large portion of its trunk, where recent blows from an axe have done irreparable damage.
Archie has three children and a wife. His children: Timothy, Delores, and Christopher, are 28, 23, and 16 years old. His wife, Ruby, likes things neat and orderly. Like, for example, the 5 acres they live on. They have, over the course of their time here, managed to make something visually pleasing and financially rewarding out of their space. They have cherry trees which they rarely need to harvest due to the overwhelming popularity of an idea Ruby had to charge citizens of their small but thriving community a nominal fee for a bucket and an afternoon with nature. They have vegetables close to their house, which sits neatly in the center of their property. These vegetables, grown naturally without chemical fertilizers, are best sellers at the various farmers’ markets that run from May to September each year. And they have flowers, dozens of varieties that Ruby and her small staff turn into bouquets and arrangements that sell like mad. It is Ruby’s business sense and Archie’s green thumb that have turned their land into a small goldmine. And that goldmine, surrounded on all sides by urban sprawl, is what Archie and Ruby are glad to call home.
The people who hacked away at the Parmer walnut tree left an axe behind. Archie can see this now. It’s not an axe he recognizes, not one of his own, and he wonders what kind of person would so vandalize another man’s only living link to his grandfather and leave what appears to be a fairly expensive and well-made tool behind. And even if the axe is not part of the scenario he wonders who might have done such a thing. This is what he knows for sure:
It is late autumn and the wind comes in stinging gusts that push against the walnut tree in quick succession. The wind would have blown the tree over by now if Archie were not holding it upright, standing there in his pajamas and embracing the thing, leaning into it inevitably in a kind of reverse tug of war, as if he alone can outwit gravity or outlast the wind as it pushes against a tree that has few leaves on its thin branches to help in the cause. That the tree is not going to make it even if Archie manages to keep it upright is a thought that seems not to have worked its way into the equation. That Archie is doing his part to maintain a center of gravity is all that matters to this bear of a man. Because Archie Parmer is obsessed with immortality.
He has always been Archie. And he has always been a large man, except, of course, for those years when he was a large baby, a large boy, or a large young man. He has a friendly smile, a good sense of humor, and a beard.
He is a high school biology teacher and the first thing he says to his new batch of students each semester is, “penis, penis, penis.” He says the word with as little zeal as possible and then he says, “Now that we have that out of the way, lets talk about something important. Let’s talk about trees, let’s talk about bacteria, let’s talk about butterfly migrations.” He knows of course that he is the teacher who says, “penis.” He knows that the students are not especially shocked by his frankness, but he hopes, nonetheless, that they are less inclined to blush when he says words like intercourse or breast or vagina. That he is obligated to follow a county-mandated curriculum is something he is not happy with but also something he is not about to fight. The curriculum dictates that he must begin with microorganisms and end with human sexuality. And since it is the anticipation of sexual language that makes students and their parents uncomfortable (but for different reasons) he tries to break the ice as quickly as he can. And so he is, in spite of anything he can do now, the teacher who says, “penis.”
Zone 2 is dry and inhospitable. The ground is as hard as it is ugly. But Archie has dedicated his life to small standoffs with probability. He would sooner see the last walnut tree in his family fall and crush him than to stand idly by and let the handiwork of a vandal get the best of him. And so he puts his shoulder into the massive trunk and holds off another sharp gust of wind. He pushes against the weight of the tree until he feels himself winning, and then he has pushed too much, too quickly, and the tree’s weight starts to pull away from him. So he holds on tightly and tries to right the delicate balance he needs to maintain. But it is too late: the tree has begun to move to wider and wider extremes. What had begun as nearly imperceptible shifts in weight has turned into a pendulum movement; the tree sways an inch toward Archie until he pushes it forward; it sways two inches away from him until he pulls it back. And now, with the cold wind in his face, he can feel that the tree is coming toward him with more force than he has had to bear thus far. He braces himself, plants his feet beneath him, a slight bend in the knee. He is Paul Bunyan. He is Atlas. But he is losing.
It is not a tree so much as a totem. Because it stands ceremoniously in the middle of his land, and because it isn’t much more than an upright trunk. It lacks much of what his students would recognize in a totem: the carved animals stacked neatly on top of each other, the brilliant colors. But it is, for all intents and purposes, a dead tree standing upright. Archie does not accept that it is completely dead, but the withered or withering branches make their point. And now that it is too late and the force of a tree his grandfather planted is coming down upon him, Archie concedes, begins to move out from below the tree. He is willing to stand aside while the tree comes down, but he finds, in spite of his willingness, that he cannot move, that his arm is caught. It is stuck somehow on deep and broken bark; the fabric of his shirt or the band of his watch is holding him in place. If his family could hear him at this moment, they would hear him saying, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”
Ruby Parmer cannot hear her husband over the sound of the dishwasher. Ruby, unlike her husband, believes that nature is a beautiful thing. This is perhaps because she continually adds to the family compost pile but does not actually put her hands into it. And it may be the result of years spent working with floral arrangements. She is not like her husband in this way, who is confident, he says, that nature, left to its own devices, will be the end of nature. This has not stopped them, however, from maintaining the most elaborate and celebrated yard in their city. The marriage of a florist and a casual, if not reluctant, botanist has its social advantages. Given her choice Ruby would be the first to hire to landscaping crew to remove her husband’s unsightly excuse for a walnut tree. But she has conceded that he does not ask for much in the garden. And since she has creative control of nearly every other aspect of their land, and since Archie is so willing to do the labor, Ruby is willing to let the tree stay in the yard, though she seems incapable of doing so with a smile. Ruby looks up from the kitchen sink where she has been peeling potatoes that she intends to make a salad out of; a mayonnaise-heavy dish that she produces regularly and from memory. She looks up and sees that the eyesore in the center of her ten acres is (A) about to fall and (B) about to crush her husband. She is delighted, then terrified, because she is getting exactly what she wants in exactly the way she doesn’t want it. Ruby screams.
Delores, the middle child and only girl born to Archie and Ruby, is in her room, too far from her father to hear him. And she wouldn’t be able to hear him anyway over the sound of Bach’s first cello suite. She is playing the suite herself on a 30-inch Craftsman saw, her favorite, and the one she treats daily with a special resin she bought from a man in Vienna, a place she has not visited, but hopes to. She is lost to the world and in love with the sound she has labored so long to perfect. But her mother’s piercing scream, which she mistakes momentarily as a fault in her own playing, causes Delores to pause and look up, where she sees, framed neatly in the center of her bay window, a walnut tree falling on her father. She too begins to scream.
Above Delores’s bed is a guitar. It is the same guitar that her boyfriend Dale gave her some 18 months ago as a sign of dedication and commitment. Dale had his named legally changed from Delmar, he says, for obvious reasons. He plays guitar in a honky tonk cover band and he felt that nothing could say, “I love you” like a new guitar. The guitar has been on the wall since that time and Delores has never tried to play it. She knows a thing or two about music and she knows that to play a chord on a guitar one must have fingers on one’s hands, and she (“thank you for the reminder”) does not meet those requirements. Since she was six years old, the thumb on Delores’s left hand has had no fingers to oppose.
In his bedroom Archie’s second son and youngest child is using a stethoscope to inspect the enormous ant farm that fills one wall of his bedroom. He is watching the ants repair a corridor that has collapsed recently and he puts his ears up to the thin wall of Plexiglas that separates the ants from him. He listens closely for any sounds the ants might make. Christopher has often used a magnifying glass to focus sunlight on unsuspecting insects; the ants’ screaming cries as they shrivel and die that has convinced him that a sonic language must exist inside the colony. He lowers a wet sponge into the farm and waits for the ants to claim this new source of water; they will dismantle and bury the sponge quickly and Christopher doesn’t want to miss it.
Christopher, like both of his siblings before him, is a student in his dad’s biology class and he knows, as well as anyone, that he isn’t putting forth as much effort as he could. But what can he say about that? It’s not that human sexuality is boring to him, and he certainly has shown a keen interest in the social structures of insects and rodents alike. But to be the son of the man who says “penis” is nothing to be proud of. Teacher of the Year be damned, Christopher is still an easy target.
The oldest son in the family has not been seen by any other member of the family for more than three years. He left, when he did, under cloudy skies, and though she said she was glad to see him gone, Ruby cried for days when a friend of Thomas’s wrote from Texas to say that Thomas had been killed in an automobile accident. But the letter was wrong—although Thomas was in an accident, he did not die and he did not have a friend to write the letter if he had died. It was, instead, just another in a long series of lies that Thomas offered to his family. He was, instead of being dead, living off the rather impressive income he was managing to acquire by selling forgeries of antique plants. That people were willing to pay through the nose for seeds of plants that were said to be extinct was great news to Thomas. And that those seeds were going to take several months to reveal that, in spite of their elaborate disguises, they were still very ordinary (that they were daisies, say, or common varieties of common houseplants) was only another benefit to the salesmen.
There was a period of 10 years between the time Delores lost her fingers and her first encounter with the musical saw. She was sold the first time she heard the wonderful sounds that an ordinary handsaw can make when it is held just right, forced to bend twice like the letter S, and touched with a bow from a violin or cello. The saw cries in Delores’s hands. She manages, in spite of missing fingers on one hand, to elicit the sound of a weeping woman from the most ordinary of carpenter’s tools. It is precisely because the saw produces such an unlikely sound that Delores loves it as much as she does. But now that she has been interrupted, and now that she has seen a tree falling on her father she has abandoned her saw for screaming. Her voice is an untrained and shrill thing that does not stand a chance against her other musical talents.
Thomas’s business partners were sad to see him go. But they are in prison now, and Thomas, lucky as he was, managed to miss the federal agents who disguised themselves as aficionados of a long extinct rose, the mere photograph of which was said to auction for thousands of dollars. In his luck Thomas decided to make a clean sweep, and he traveled north to join his family. With him he has brought apologies, and financial success, and a wife, Isabel, who has been blind from birth, and who, Thomas hopes, will be evidence enough that he is ready to settle, to make a fresh start, to show a little effort. He had prepared a speech for his family, a long and apologetic thing that has been reduced over the long miles between there and here. As it stands he is prepared to say, “I’ve changed.”
Christopher hears his mother’s scream, followed by his sister’s louder scream and begins to make wild notes in his field book, because he is convinced that he has heard something from his ants that will shake the scientific world. But before he can write much his sister throws open his door, runs into his room, and continues to scream. She says, “No, no, no, no, no,” and runs out. Something is wrong, that’s for sure. And so Christopher steps out of his room cautiously and sees, down the hallway, standing in the front doorway, his dead brother, a young woman wearing dark glasses, and his sister, running in circles. “So,” Christopher says to his brother, “What did you do now?”
Thomas sees his family for the first time in nearly four years in the following order:
He lives with this family because he wants to and because, for the last handful of years, there has been a spare bedroom. And although he is not in need of any care he likes the company. He is obsessed with furniture and he thinks that hardship leads to quality like nothing else can. Given the chance he is likely to speak at length about the high standards set by early-American craftsman who didn’t have many nails but who still managed to create furniture that has lasted for centuries. Given the chance he will also use the chair he is sitting on to illustrate his point by raising the chair (if it’s light enough) over his head to demonstrate the fantastic or deplorable work in question. He is a retired foreman from a lumberyard in the Pacific Northwest and he has come to accept certain disappointments. His favorite jokes are about environmentalists and spotted owls.
So here is the land, full of cherry trees and perennials and enormous potatoes, that Archie is pinned to. Here is land that should not be so fruitful, but has, by virtue of hard work, dedication, and just enough dumb luck been turned into a little Eden. And here is the man who has no head for business but who has managed, nonetheless, to get his hands on some cash, who can sense that things are not going his way. Archie’s left arm and shoulder are wedged firmly below the last heirloom of the second Parmer fortune. “Call somebody,” Archie is saying, “Call anybody.” He grunts and wheezes alternately and complains that the ribcage he used to have is not doing its job because the pain, oh man, the pain.
“Will you stop it?” Ruby says to no one in particular, now that she has recovered slightly and is prepared to handle things in her normal way: orderly and with determined patience. But something about her voice, the hoarseness that gets emphasized when she raises the volume, the annoyance that is unmistakable and just rare enough to suggest that she means business, leads Delores to stop the crying that naturally evolved from her screaming, leads Christopher to stop pacing nervously, and leads Archie to hold his breath. “Chris,” she says, “Call 911.” She tells Delores to go and get a washcloth and some cool water. And just relax, dear,” she says to her husband, “Just relax.” And in trying to do so, Archie releases the air from his lungs and winces at the enormous weight that is holding him down. “And by the way,” Ruby says, “We have a guest.”
Archie Parmer is not as damaged as he and his family might think. He will, before long, find himself relieved from the pressure of his Walnut tree, though not, it seems, from other problems associated with paternity. Which is to say that Archie and his family have some things to sort out. And each of them knows that they have enough regret to begin with. The pain in Archie’s chest will go away but not before some minor swelling and bruising. Archie’s rib cage will suffer no breaks. There will be enough potato salad to go around.
She is a frail women, and unassuming. She wears dark glasses because she is blind and that is what she has been told blind people wear. This is what Thomas tells Christopher, loudly, in a voice that suggests he has nothing to whisper about and nothing to hide. Christopher, for his part, was only asking, he meant no harm. Meanwhile, Isabel has little to say; truth be told she has nothing to say. But she has a polite smile that suggests to the Parmer family that Thomas is finally, and thankfully, in good company.
Archie’s shoulder is broken and although the doctors can help his body
heal correctly and quickly, there is little they can do for Archie’s left
arm. It has suffered the greatest damage and must be removed, the doctors
decide, but not before they explain that if only Archie had made it to
the E.R. sooner, and if only the arm hadn’t suffered such a violent blow,
and so on and so on. But you should see the things they can do with prostheses
these days. The doctors are confident: all smiles.