The Girl in the Tree, Chapter 11

There are over 25,000 flights taking off from various airports in America everyday, and as one of those big silver eagles was lobbing itself up into the sky to hope it didn’t wind up a dodo, Annie’s mother, Gwen, was sitting inside of it, tucked neatly away in one of the window seats with her head in her laptop while the world whizzed by and beneath her. Only a simple turn of the neck kept her from seeing the patchwork of the quilt of corn and wheat fields that is the American Midwest, but such a thrill had long ago been lost on her, as she spent more time in airplanes than most people do in their cars. The shadow of that very airplane passed over a small white house with dirty siding just as Annie was returning to it, hundreds of feet below.

“Dad?� she called out from the kitchen, her dirt caked feet kicking the door closed behind her as she proceeded to set the brown bag she was holding onto gently down on the oak table her father had made before she was born. “Oh, daaaadyyyy!� she called again, her slender, knobby fingers producing a rather large bottle of red wine from the old paper bag, which fell to the floor as she lifted the bottle up to inspect it. The silky malleable impurities meandering through the purplish-red thick of the juice reflected her in and out through the caustics of the glass. The label read “Bully Hill – Love My Goat� and had a rather psychedelic drawing of a goat’s head with various sayings scribbled around it like “They took my name but they can’t take my dignity.� Annie had no idea what they were getting at, all she knew was that it was wonderfully delicious and rather inexpensive, grown locally and sold by a peddler down at her favorite market. She threw her arm like a slinky, up and into the cupboard, retrieving two wine glasses, and made her way upstairs. Her father was sitting in his den, reading an article on the Constitution of the United States, found in the 1991 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Annie laughed at him when she realized what he was brushing up on, not completely without admiration for his ever-continuous quest for knowledge, as irrelevant as it might see to a slack-jawed youth with little in the way of responsibility such as herself.

“Care for a spot o’ wine?� she prodded, using her best Absolutely Fabulous impersonation and clinging the glasses together above her head.

“Oh, well, let’s see…your mother’s sky high and out of town by now and seeing as it’s only just after 6:30—“he checked his wrist as though it had a watch on it, “most certainly.� Britannica found herself, encyclopedia and all, closing shut and falling to the coffee table. “So,� he spun his fingers as to signal her to make haste, “what’s the occasion?�

“Good times, my dad,� big smiles, “Good, good times.�

“Sounds like cause for celebration to me,� he wraps his fingers around the stem of the glass as she fills the chalice as full as possibly and pulls it up to his lips, spilling a bit down over his hand and onto his lap. The wine is sweet and stings the back of his mouth. He lets out a relieved sigh and licks his lips.

“So, daddy, I was hoping that you were going to let me have a look at another one of your books, eh?� She batted her eyes in her typical daddy’s-little-girl fashion opened her lips up to reveal a Grand Canyon’s worth of pearly white smile.

He tilted his head and snorted a little through his nose, “Word of advice, honey.� He took another sip and set the glass down on the end table beside him, between a book entitled Who You Are and Where You’ll Never Be and a copy of the Bible that had never been opened. “If you’re going to try and get what you want in life by going around and getting people drunk, you should wait until they’ve had at least two drinks.�

She smiled.

He returned the favor.

“Okay, then, perhaps you could just tell me a little bit about your life back then?� and he could see in her inquisitive eyes a certain proper mixture of relentless and longing that was impossible to say no to.

“Christ,� he thought to himself, “I almost bought her a pony because of that look.� Her mother had diverted that flood though, perhaps to the dismay of her daughter. Certainly not to the detriment of the community.

“What about you, Annie?� He picked his glass back up, crossed his legs and slouched back in his seat. “What are you doing? You’re 23 now and still living here, any hopes, plans, dreams? Or are we never going to get to turn your room into an office for your mother?�

“Hah! Mom with an office…what, so she could have a place to store her plane ticket receipts?� She licked the last drop from her wine glass and commenced filling it again. Once a wine glass has been filled once, it feels incredibly less whole when you empty it, and so refilling it is the only kind thing to do.

“Seriously, let’s talk about you.� She could tell that he was giving her the same stubborn and serious look that she had given her only moments ago, with the exception that while hers was full of youthful cutesy, his had the power of fatherly demand to go along with it. She gave in.

“Okay, me first—“ she sipped another lip full, “then you.� And before he could protest she began to recant her ideas, sealing the deal like neither a handshake or twelve page document ever could.

“See, I’ve been watching the world for the last several years, and I’ve found it to be quite interesting. All of the cars and people and birds sitting high up on wires and gas pumps and mail sticking out mailslots and all. So I’m going to continue on watching life until I either figure out why it’s so interesting, or get bored with it. At that point, I’ll probably become an astronaut and see what the next world is like.� He was about to laugh, when he realized she was serious. “But in the mean time, I’ve been thinking about getting a camera and taking pictures of the pieces I find the most appealing. You know, photography.�

“And do you want to go to school for this?� His glass was now finished, but he sat it down on the table next to him without intentions of refilling it, finding interest in his daughter’s words and wanting to focus completely on them as they rolled off of her tongue one syllable at a time.

“Hmmm…well I don’t know actually, I hadn’t given that any thought.� She swallowed the last of her own glass and refilled the both of them. “Go on, drink up,� she added. “I think I’ll at first just take pictures on my own. See what I can figure out that way. I don’t need any lessons to look at something and have a machine remember it for me, right?�

“Well, what about developing the pictures and all, that takes a little know how, I’m sure.�

“Yeah, I’ll just take them down to Gary. He’s this guy I know who works at the photo place on West 8th. He’ll take care of it for me. Probably won’t even charge me.�

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that,� he was now half way through his second glass. They always go much quicker than their predecessors. “How is it that you don’t have a job yet you’re always coming home with stuff, eating out and all sorts of things. You never bring anyone home so I’m assuming you don’t have a boyfriend, so what’s the deal with that?�

“I don’t need a job. Well, I don’t need money. But I’ve got lots of jobs, I guess you could call them. I just do things to help people out and they return the favor.�

“Oh yeah?� he left out a little chuckle, though in the back of his mind he couldn’t help but feel a little worried. “Like what?�

“Well, take Gary for example. He doesn’t really like his job, he wanted to be some big time photographer, you know, but I guess there’s only room for so many photographers out there and he didn’t make the cut. Anyway, he doesn’t like his job, so every now and then I go over and help him out. I just do little things like sweep up or make silly flower decorations for the place. They remind him of me and we’re friends, so that makes him happy. Instead of dreading going to work everyday, now he looks forward to it. I’d say that was a good thing, wouldn’t you?

“So in turn, he buys me lunch once in a while or maybe he’ll develop my pictures for me if I ask him to. It’s all very innocent and he knows it, so don’t get any ideas. I’m not leading guys on or anything, a lot of the people I help out don’t give me anything back, and some people do things for me and I don’t do anything for them, really. I just kind of like living life with a happy little smile on my face and somehow it works out. You should try it sometime.�

He smiled and realized how proud of his daughter he was, she was the free soul that he had always aspired to be at her age, but she didn’t even seem to try, it was just the natural way she was. A flower that had been tucked up into one of the matted locks darting out from her head fell to the ground and suddenly he found himself very sad, thinking of the past 23 years and everything that had happened.

“It’s amazing how years and years of memories can be condensed into a single moment,� he said, “they all just flood in as one overwhelming emotion.� She looked up at him, right into his eyes, which were shivering as they tried to hold back even the tiniest spot of tear. She put her hand on his knee and leaned over to give him a hug.

“But on the other hand, that traffic guard down by the elementary school is a real bitch.� He laughed, knowing exactly what she meant, how the fat old woman would scowl at you if you tried crossing the street without her permission, as though she commanded authority over all of the denizens of the land, not just the school kids walking to and fro.

They continued talking for the length of the bottle, and as the last drops made their way through the air to splash ripples in Annie’s drink, she left herself fall back onto the floor and stare up and the dark blue ceiling, hundreds of little white specs where the paint had fallen off or been chipped away over the past 15 years since it was last painted. She watched as her eyes played tricks on her and the dots began shining like stars, and then lines connected them, each and every one.

“And I’ll still make it to the moon one day, I’ve got plenty of time to practice.� George smiled and leaned his head back, closing his eyes.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?� she shouted, scurrying to her feet. “I’ve got another surprise.� Annie reached in her pocket and produced a small glass pipe and a plastic baggie full of marijuana.

“Want to?� she asked him, as though it was as innocent as asking a toddler if he’d like a sip of soda. “C’mon, it’ll be fun. Besides, I know you used to.�

“Then you should certainly stop reading my books. And it’s been ages since I’ve…well, your mother would be furious, and anyway I shouldn’t probably be doing this with you.�

“Mom isn’t going to be home for days so,� she finished packing the pipe and handing it and a lighter to her father. He lit up the green bud and did his best to inhale the smoke, which he thought would be more difficult than it was. His lungs did a fine job and he thanked them all the more for it a few rounds later. He felt his eyelids droop down and his head having a conversation with itself that he wasn’t particularly a part of, then leaned back and lit himself one of Annie’s cigarettes.

The two talked for several more hours about George’s younger days and how exactly Annie expected to get to the moon. Neither one would have been making much sense to any FBI agents who might be listening in through wiretaps or mutated cockroaches, but to each other they were having the chit chat of a lifetime, the defining moment when father and daughter form a friendship that breaks away the teacher/student relationship of the past and allows them to both branch out into new ways of seeing the other. If the hands on the grandfather clock in the neighbors’ house would have been looking through Annie and George’s window instead of busy pointing out how late the hour was, they would have seen the two of them falling asleep in their chairs, Annie’s head tilted over to rest on her father’s shoulder and remain that way until the next morning.

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