sporklet 10

Travis M. Dahlke

The Tree

My Uncle Bruce lived in a trailer park. It was one near an ocean where all the motels had a mermaid painted on their front sign. He was a ropy version of my dad, but with the same overbite and jean jacket. He didn’t have money but he was smart. Everyone knew that he was smart. They always said it was a classic case of unapplied potential. A classic case of one brother flying right and the other going South to Florida, until migrating back up the coast to follow a candle maker named Sylvia Brown. Everyone said he told you things that were true. My mom said it was what made people not want to stay around him as much.

It was May when my family went to the shore. A stagnant pond-water kind of spring that makes the legs of your pants feel terrible. We rented a duplex on a place called Osprey Lane and my parents talked about how Bruce must’ve thought it was off-putting that we didn’t stay with him. Our cottage wallpaper was made to look wooden. The old woman next door fed her cat uncooked hot dogs.

“The whole reason we came out here was to be close to Bruce,” my dad said in the car. His brother had an ulcer. I had seen drawings of them at school - little flesh volcanos attached to walls of stomach lining. I saw them in barnacles on the totems that divided up the saltwater.

“It’s cause he used to eat limes like they were apples,” my mom said.

His campground was off a gravel road. This was where my parents were dropping me off on their way to their casino. They said it would make Bruce happy to hang out with his nephew, and gave me a sandwich along with twenty dollars for ice cream. My mom waited in the car while my dad shook his brother’s hand and they surveyed what was around them with their hands on their hips. Squinting at faraway things.

“You were this small last time I saw you,” Bruce said, boring through morning humidity. I remembered him with earth in his knuckles and a blanket over his car seat. Less round of a stomach, but I didn’t tell him that. He seemed to know everybody. Women with freckled sunburns asleep in folding chairs. Men who wore wigs. “Meet my nephew. He’s going to be 11.” Some just waved while others took my hand to shake it. He showed me the whole park, pointing out how the gypsy caterpillars were eating the Japanese honeysuckle. “An invasive eating another invasive.”

I asked him if he had ever seen tornado and he said that was just on TV. We visited a man who sat with his feet in an inflatable pool, whose name was Hewitt. Hewitt paid my uncle to repair a lawnmower. I helped him bring it to my uncle’s camper and sat in the grass while he spat at different filters for a while as if they were birthday candles.

“You have a girlfriend?”


“I had a girl here. That kind of hair-do like the lumbar of a wave. Biker tattoos. Left with a fuckin’ shoobie. Some rich guy.”

“I’ve heard that before,” I said, though I hadn’t heard that before and took out my sandwich which I thought would make me less thirsty.

“There’s an ass for every seat I guess,” he said. The lawnmower growled to life when heĀ  yanked its cord. “Why do you have a sandwich? Your mom give you that?” He took the bleach white square tightly encased in Saran and crumpled it up to throw it like a molten baseball. The lawnmower petered out. “It’s summer. You cook outside in the summer. Come on, we’re going to the grocery store.”

By grocery store, he meant a cabinet where he kept guns and Pledge. It was the first time I had been hunting. Bruce carried a rifle and he gave me an empty revolver which I stuffed into my belt. My thirst turned to hunger, and it felt normal to be out in the heat finding things to kill. I asked him what we were going for but he didn’t hear.

After a long time walking around we stopped at a lagoon where the air was soaked in fish grease. An entire field of rotting boats with the names of women peeling off them. “It’s a boat cemetery, kid. Bet you never saw a boat cemetery. We gotta nix a squirrel and they love it here.” Before I could voice my objection a blast discharged from his gun, followed by an immediate ringing in my ear with a patter of raining wood-chips and crows. He fired again. “Got him.”

He skinned the squirrel and affixed twine to its carcass. “This is how we catch crabs,” he said.

“Are there squids in there?”

“Oh yeah, there’s squids. Little ones, but they’re there.”

After lowering the squirrel into the swamp, we waited. Not talking, but listening to how the stillness moved. When the string was taught he pulled it out to reveal a cluster of blue crab, jittering robotically and clinging to the flesh of the squirrel which had turned white and lured a cloud of flies. On the way back we passed through a grove of fat trees. There was one, hairy with bark that boiled out in brain-like scabs. A mess of vines spilling off its terrible branches. Watching us pass.

We roasted the crabs on the stove, but ate outside in his patio furniture. Their woven backs felt good to weigh against after our hunt. My uncle kept four beers and gave me two, disregarding his ulcer. There was no grilling. I decided I’d keep my $20. I had a shoebox half-full with saved bills.

When we finished eating he closed his eyes. I closed mine too and we listened to a chamber of frog throats. It was strangely terrifying to know we had just been inside the now inked out wilderness that sat behind us and I started to fall asleep to the thought of it.

“That tree that we saw earlier.”

I knew exactly which tree he was talking about.


“You’re not going to like what I’m gonna say.”


“That tree is going to be what kills you. I can’t tell how or when. But it’s going to have something to do with that tree.”

I asked him how and Bruce said that he knew things and he knew the tree we had seen earlier would be what would ultimately be responsible for my death. Nothing more. This seemed like a strange thing to say, me being 11, so at first I thought he was winding me up.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you knew it too. How we stopped at it? I could tell. You knew. It was looking at us too.”

“You’re kidding around.”

He sat up in his chair. “I would never kid around about something like this.”

“I’ll just, I don’t know. I’ll avoid it,” I said.

“Hey, I wish it was that simple but I’m afraid it’s not.”

I asked him what he suggest I do. Bruce thought about this for a second.

“That’s entirely up to you.” The peepers chirped slower with the raw of morning creeping up on us. I noticed he had accidentally kicked over one of his open beers, and let it lay there.

I thought of it being cut down, its evil spreading about the world as weapons in wait. A toothpick after finishing a blind date, the thing lodging itself in my throat. There was the tree I passed every morning on my way to work that was afflicted by a yellow lichen. One branch extending over the road. A single plank of lumber rotting in a windowsill. Or a paper cut, becoming sudsy and infected before I lectured to a classroom. A crooked stair in a house that I tripped over. I thought of chopping it up into firewood, knowing full well it would try to burn my house down. But I would already be outside. Safe. Through every thrown splinter.

“There’s not a lot you can do. Not with these kinds of things.”

Bruce died from a series of strokes. First taking his voice and then control of his face, before finally dumping wax into his heart. The ulcer was a red herring. It died with him. A companion. A friend that had only kept him company.

It was hard to remember where exactly Bruce’s trailer park was, but I found it sleeping behind a place where they rented jet skis. The motels were bigger now and entombed in siding made to look like salt & pepper shingles. You could smell the acid when the sun shone on them. From the abandoned RV park, I went through the woods to the grove which had become overtaken by tall grass and ticks. There I found a stump to sit, but I couldn’t make out which one was or had been the tree.

After a while, I got back up. It was here that I tried to see things that were far away and placed both hands on my hips if anything just to have something to do.

Travis M. Dahlke is the author of the novella, Hollow as Legs (Otherwhere Press, Amsterdam). His writing has appeared in Structo, Noble/Gas Qtrly, The Head & the Hand Press, Soliloquies and The Tishman Review among other places. He currently resides in Middletown, CT.