A Maple Tree, Chapter 1

On James Avenue sat a white house, nearly identical to every other house on that side of the street, save for the color, and collectively they stained the earth like so many years of grime and wear on the very siding that clung from those dodgy domiciles. Inside of this particular house sat a girl, legally a woman by several years, but indecisive in her 20-something ideals and wishes that prevented her from having that particular glint in her mottled hazel eyes that would give another individual reason to call her a “woman” rather than “just a girl.” Blanketed in a dress which she had fashioned herself using her dead grandmother’s sewing machine, it hung loosely and wrinkled from her shoulders, draped along the floor to cover her feet, the souls of which were caked in the dirty thickness of suburban America; her never wearing shoes, socks or any other garb befitting a set of toes, heels and in-betweens. The dress was once white, but had now slightly yellowed from the stains of nicotine and spilled tea and she had sewn patches from various other clothes of sentiment. A rose print formerly part of a blanket that was made by her mother but chewed to tatters by her dog; a Czech Republic flag from her visit there; a long maroon strip crimped neatly into pockets running down the dress’ left side from the sleeve of an ex-boyfriend. That would be an accurate physical description, but quite simply put, she was sunbeam elegance vibrating through the dirty specs in the air, she was the heavenly light streamers pouring through the clouds in the early morning after a long, boring haul at church, she was the apple freshly fallen from the tree and rolling down the farmland’s endless grassy hill.

The girl was rocking herself towards sleep with the mechanics that a leather couch and those dirty feet of hers produced, the middle of a sunny summer afternoon pouring in satin-thick through the windows in its best attempt to avert her from her slumbery mission. Her lips wrapped up in the wealth of yummy humming-stirring that fills the skin in that strange twilight between blinking your eyes closed and just barely napping, the curl spilling up over her cheeks like just too much milk in the mug. A cute boy from high school rode past her on a unicorn, a younger version of herself trotted a tricycle in circles around the garage, and the sun shot rays of Disco ball light all over the never-ending foggy landscape of her memories mixing with her dreams. Just as her eyes closed and she was seconds away from sleep her father walked down the stairs and, not seeing her sleeping, asked “Would you like some tea then, Annie?

“Hmmm….mmmm…â€? she reveled in the waking, as it would only lead to prolonging this purgatory dreamscape. “No thank you,” she whispered, nearly inaudibly, “I’m just going to take a nap here.”

He looked her over, smiling, feeling the plethora of emotions that a proud parent is overcome with each time they realize that the creature in front of them is the same one they watched from the time she was no more than a kick inside of her mother’s belly. Her eyeballs moved under their fleshy lids, the index finger on her right hand slowly stroked the arm of the chair and just enough motion was left in that old rocker to keep her swaying through the dusty particles dancing through the sun’s big beams. A picture of Annie when she was a child glared in the reflecting light, she wore a baseball uniform and smiled with all of the innocence and hope that we all have before the realities of life come in to occupy our time and remind us of what we could have become if the necessities of putting food on the table and a roof over our collections of junk hadn’t made the top of the priority list. He began to imagine that they were both fifteen years younger, he was doing the dishes and looking out through the back window at her climbing the big maple tree in the backyard, brown hair blowing through the limbs and leaves like vines finally finding the proper home. Her toes weaving between the bark and sending her up like a geyser riding a bottle rocket on a Sunday afternoon. From the time she was six, well into her teenage years, she would climb that tree every morning, playing cowboys and Indians and Barbie dolls or just playing, generally enjoying youth. As the daydream memory scene was playing out in his head, he watched her swing from one branch only to miss the next, and come bellowing ten feet down from the tree to the earthen floor below. Just as she, in his vision, hit the ground, so did the plate he was drying. He snapped back into reality.

“What happened?” Annie called from the living room. “You alright?”

“Yeah. Yes…yes,” he replied, eyes welling, a bit shaken but not so much from shattered plates, “I just dropped this plate is all. Really.” He swept up the glass as best he could and walked up into his study. Moments later, the tea kettle kicked up, humming its tune at first before brandishing its best falsetto. Annie came to pour a cup for him and herself, and made her way up the thirteen stairs that led from the ground floor to the second floor of the old Cape Cod style dwelling they had come to call home. She stood in the doorway of the study where her father was resting, melting into his armchair while leafing through an old black book, its cover’s corners dented in and the pages loose inside, left many years ago to pull from their bindings over the struggles and subtle pleasures of long days of being opened and closed and folded and written in and closed and opened. The book’s pages were all done up in hand written and as Annie’s father read over each page, slowly turning one to another like a mother parting her daughter’s hair into Sunday school braids, it was apparent that he was teetering at the edge of a pool of tears. He was sucking air up into his nose and lungs like a baby whimpering, but doing his best to silence it all, having no idea his daughter stood in the doorway behind him and not wanting his insides to come spilling out all over the pages. He was well trained in such matters, though, as he’d been holding in bubbling magma emotions for decades now, containing small atomic explosions of desire and lust and regret and shame inside of his bones so that he was nearly completely shattered and only now held together by a few thin layers of skin. He was adult man, strong and stern from the skin out, and everything wobbling, cracking, cringing, just-held-together inside.

“What’s that?” she slid through the door and cracked open the silence, startling him in the process. A single tear made it through his defenses, puddled up on the brim of his eye and then took the long spinning plunge down to dot and splatter across his book. He looked up at her, steamy tea swirling around her face and through her winding unkempt hair, “freckles in the fog,â€? he thought to himself.

“Oh, nothing, really. Just something I used to do.”

She sat down beside him and handed him the big green mug that was his half of the leafy caffeine warmth. “Looks like poetry to me, you used to write poems?”

“Yeah,” he smirked, as though she had just asked Michelangelo if he liked to draw. “In my younger years I was a bit of a poet, I surmise.”

“Well, you wrote poems so you were a poet, right?�

“If I’d’ve said, ‘I suppose,’ that would have given you reason to believe that I at least had some sort of inkling as to whether or not I was a writer. ‘I surmise’ is more accurate, because I don’t have hard evidence.� He closed the book up and pushed his gaze through the smudged window across the room. “I never got around to that part.�

“Can I see?” she leaned over and tried to slip the book from his hands, hoping to read what was written in the smudged and faded pencil, yellowed worn pages and atrocious handwriting.

“Someday maybe, not right now.” The 20-something version of him had been slightly more objective about sex and drugs and his willingness to write about the implications that childbirth had dropped upon his youthful spirit, so he wasn’t certain that her reading his long dormant words was the best idea. Not while sitting in the same room as him anyway. He sipped his tea and kept looking out the window until it was uncertain as to whether or not he might fall up out of his chair and right through the glass.

“What’s wrong, dad?” she asked him, hoping he would tell her but knowing his standard response.

“Nothing.” To him it was just another question, like when the girl behind the counter at 7-11 asks you, “How’s it going?” It usually doesn’t even warrant a reply, just a return of the question. We’ve all been reduced to asking questions to be polite, not even realizing that we’re being utterly rude by not answering. We’d all be a lot better off if we only asked questions when we were looking for some sort of solution to a problem. Annie was thinking similar thoughts at the very moment.

“Okay. But if you wanted to we could chat.”

“I know, I suppose, anyway. Mid-life crisis I guess you could call it. Only I’ve been going through it for the last twenty years.”

“What, you’re unhappy with where you’re at? A nice house, two cars, a beautiful daughter.” She smiled a little. He smiled back, but only out of a similar sort of courtesy he might show that woman from 7-11. “You weren’t dealt such a bad hand.â€?

“No, but that’s the problem. Someone else dealt the cards.” His reply was sharp, quick, rude, and he felt that it was a little too directed at her for comfort’s concern. He considered his composure and with a new tone, “I never had a chance to draw from the deck, you might say. I never really wanted any of this,” he looked up at her, “I despise owning things, special sets of silverware for certain occasions, leather couches and five TVs. I just can’t understand how we’ve gotten to this point?”

“Well, I’m guessing it started at Wal-Mart and…”

“Hah, you’re funny, Annie, really funny. Forget about it.” He looked back down into the book and she felt ashamed that she had made a joke at what was obviously a very serious moment for him.

“Alright, I’m sorry, Daddy.” She moved a bit closer to him, kneeling up against his chair, on her knees, arms folded to pillow her head and looked up to him with the adoring admiration of a girl who imagines heros wear her father’s necktie. “Look, I start thinking about life and where I’m going to be in ten years, or when I’m your age, you know?â€? He kept his neck stone stiff and staring at the murky reflection of the room in his loafers. “But there’s no use in regretting anything or…well, I don’t know. I’m not you, I guess.â€?

“You’re not, baby, and I appreciate the consolatory advice and all, I guess I just don’t see what the point to it all has been.�

“You act like your dead, dad. Calm down. Sip some tea, take a drive, do whatever, just relax. Life’s too short, I know that sounds—“

“Exactly. Life is much much too short and I’ve gone and wasted all of it already. When you’re young, your age, it seems like you have all of the time in the world to relax and enjoy yourself and get around to things in a little while, but eventually you wake up and it’s been a good long while the only time you have left is sucked up in mowing the lawn and trying to remember all of the anniversaries and dinner parties and birthdays of everyone you’re looking to have respect you. Why, I have no idea.�

“So they’ll remember yours as well, and bring you a nice big bottle of beer to wash away those blues you seem to get every time you come up here. Up here to disappear, I guess. Is it into those books?�

“These books were everything to me. At one time, anyway. I never went anywhere without one and I never went a day without filling up a dozen pages or so.�

She imagined him the younger man he is in pictures around the house, sipping coffee and writing graphite rivers. “So why’d you quit?� She noticed his face was flushing, and his hands were clenching to crack his knuckles in every direction they would twist.

“It’s not something that just happened. Slow, over time, you know.�

“No, not particularly. Why don’t you tell me?�

“It’s nothing really. I don’t want to be the old dick who tries to ruin the young kids’ lives because he hates his own, but you be careful, okay? Be careful because every day that you get older a little something dies and you never realize it until you’re knee deep in diapers and medical bills and…� he waned off into such a grumble that it was more alarming to her than if he’d have suddenly stood up and shot through the roof bullet-like into space. Then he just closed his eyes and asked her to leave the room. She was confused and at first hesitated to listen to him, but after a few moments realized that he hadn’t really been in the mood to talk with her at all. All he wanted was to wallow and stew in his own mind for awhile.

Annie made her way back down stairs and back into the slippery sleeper of that leather couch, continuing to think about her father, her mind darting back through the archives, remembering her parents talking about his writing occasionally when she was much younger. It would often lead them into arguments, but these were hazy memories from before she was in the double digit age rage and she hadn’t noticed them talking about it for years. She started thinking about everything he’d said, particularly how you have to hold onto youth because it’s always becoming a little more buried in yesterday. How he felt that he’d been dealt this life rather than having decided it for his own. Then she started thinking about how a child would be the first step on the way to ultimate adulthood depression, as pure and complex as responsibility can be. Annie realized that she was the reason for his unhappiness, and slipped into sleep wrapped in a blanket heavy with confusion, anger and guilt.

Up Next: Dreaming Opposition