@1992 Pinehurst Journal
M. Anderson Parks
The worst thing about having no money was that it made him want time to pass. Time was all he had. He hated to wish it away. Yet if he could just get through the afternoon, and then the weekend, the check would be in the mailbox and he could pay the landlord and buy food.
“Trees are being felled around the world at the rate of fifty acres a minute.” Edwin’s attention was drawn by the urgency in the voice. The stiffness in his neck, when he turned his eyes toward the television set, made him wonder how long he had been staring at the wall. He gazed morosely at the earnest, bearded man. “Without enough trees to scrub the atmosphere of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide we spew out with our cars and factories, the Earth is likely to experience in the next forty years a temperature rise greater and faster than any in human history. The result will be a planet increasingly uninhabitable for humans.” The words emerged ominously from the depths of the beard.
The throbbing started behind Edwin’s eyes. Using the fingers of both hands, he pushed back his long hair and tried to massage away the ache. He would be sixty-five if he were alive in forty years. He turned off the television. By breathing in and out slowly, he made the throbbing cease. Then he eased his long frame through the open window to the fire escape landing and steadied himself against the railing. He had eaten his last slice of bread the night before. Each month when his check came, he paid his rent first because the main thing was that he be here in this apartment, ready, but then there was never enough for food. The rent was now double what it had been a few years ago. He coped by using less energy. When the food ran out he didn’t leave the house or move around much.
Edwin lowered himself to a sitting position, his back against the wall. The heat had been intense for days, and he was grateful for the huge shade tree whose branches overhung the building. He liked thinking about how long the tree had been there and how strong it was. Sometimes he entered the trunk and disappeared inside it and stood there strong himself, feeling the deep, intricate and powerful root system grounding him, giving him all the support he would ever need to withstand forces that tried to beat him down. Now he simply stayed very still, cherishing the cool wall against his back and a light breeze that felt like a touch of grace. He let himself drift into dreams that at first were comforting. It occurred to him he could be a modern-day Johnny Appleseed and go around planting trees. Maybe that was illegal though. He’d have to do it at night. And he’d need money. Could he possibly save a little out of each unemployment check?
If these trees were mine, Edwin mused, if I owned all the trees in this neighborhood and somebody yelled up to me that he would give me five thousand dollars cash right now, on the spot, if I’d let him cut one of them, I’d yell back, “Forget it!”
Life hadn’t offered him any opportunities to be a hero, but he kept hoping. He had been a clerk in a hardware store for a while and was laid off soon after his mother’s fatal heart attack last winter. That was about all there was, so far, to the actual story of his life. This was the apartment he had grown up in. It had always been just him, his mother, and his mother’s mother.
His mother and grandmother used to sit and talk at the kitchen table, after they’d cleared it of everything but the napkin rings. He would lurk in a corner, apparently engrossed in his building blocks or his stamp collection, small and invisible. His patience rivaled that of his sad and dark-eyed mother and, from time to time, was rewarded.
He learned that once there had been a husband, his father, and this husband had gone off to work daily in the first months of the marriage, taking with him a lunch prepared by Grandmother. One day Grandmother, whose sharp eyes missed very little, was riding past a park on a bus, when whom should she see but his dad, sitting on a bench eating the fine lunch she had prepared for him. He was nowhere near his place of employment and it was three o’clock in the afternoon. She confronted him with these facts when he arrived home, as usual, at six o’clock. The young husband turned to his wife in tears. He confessed he’d lost his job many days earlier but not been able to bring himself to tell the two women. Instead he had taken his lunch and sat in the park every day, until it was time to go home. The following morning the husband left the house and never returned.
The child spent hours imagining what had been in the husband’s mind as he whiled away the long days in the park, unable to summon courage to convey the news of his failure to these two strong women. Edwin was glad, now that the same fate had visited itself on him, that there was no one depending on him and no one he need tell. He shifted position slightly and felt the growing stiffness in his back, but he had no desire to move from his open air perch. When his grandmother was living, he was never allowed on this landing.
His father’s departure lingered, a presence throughout his childhood. The grandmother’s energetic efficiency layered over but did not obliterate it. He would take walks and be gone as long as he dared. It was never long enough. He was never ready to turn the knob and re-enter the stifling domesticity of his grandmother’s world. What made his return important was the easing of tension it brought to his mother’s face. He was saddened and somewhat amazed that the light waiting in his mother’s eyes did not draw the father back too. On the rare occasions when their doorbell rang, his heart stopped, struck into silence by the possibility born of that ring. He and his mother joined in a quivering hope that was, ironically, paralyzing. It almost prevented either of them going to the door and opening it.
The breeze was gone, Edwin realized, but he had no energy to move. There was no reason to go back into the apartment before darkness came. He would rest in the thick, still absence of the breeze and wait for its possible return.
“It’s a doggy dog world!” his grandmother’s voice rang out with bitter certainty. Used to making his own sense of the phrases that floated into his corner, he wasn’t surprised at his grandmother’s resentment of a doggy dog world. It was because she didn’t like animals that he wasn’t allowed a pet. Over the years his mother gave him wonderful stuffed animals, and with these soft and lumpy creatures packed around him each night, he entered his strange dreams of wandering and searching. The dreams were a frightening labyrinth from which it was a relief to wake in the morning and be greeted by Poky Puppy’s understanding brown eyes. It was in civics class, when the teacher explained capitalism, that he learned what “dog eat dog” meant.
Edwin gripped his fingers around the iron railing at his side. People would have to see the need for sharing, sooner or later. Wouldn’t they? It frustrated him how few saw the significance of trees, or of anything really important. His grip went slack and the insight slid away, leaving only memories.
Another time his grandmother muttered that he didn’t have the stuff a man is made of. It was never a question who “he” was. Edwin was Edwin and “he” was always the absent one. What stuff had his father been made of? The child decided his father and he and the beloved animals shared the same stuffing, and what made other people different was that they did not. “Anyway, I’m glad to be rid of that tobacco smell,” said his grandmother.
There were phrases he could find no way to reconcile. “Another mouth to feed was what drove him off.” The words leapt over the squares of linoleum and into his skull and lodged there. “Oh no, I don’t think it was that,” his mother murmured, but doubt sat in her voice. She had pleaded, “Please could we not talk about it?” His grandmother had sighed heavily and after a moment spoke of curtains and recipes and random things that had no power to hurt. He had trouble eating after that. The two women worried when they saw him getting thinner. They bought special foods to tempt him. He looked away from their offerings and shook his head, a weight of sadness on him. But the concern he was causing his mother became an even heavier burden. He forced himself to take small bites and chew endlessly, so the food could make its way down without choking him.
“He’ll never amount to anything either.” For once Edwin was “he.” He knew that because of the acid “either” his grandmother threw in his direction, poisoning his corner, making it no longer a retreat that yielded solace, but a cell to which he had been condemned.
And yet she loved him. His mother told him she did, and it was true that Grandmother combed and brushed and washed him, fed him, took his temperature frequently, spooned medicine into him when he was sick. He had been sick often as a child. He remembered Grandmother brushing his hair hard, scraping the bristles across his scalp, and holding the spoon firmly, forcing medicine into him. That would not happen anymore. Grandmother, like Mother, was dead.
Suddenly all around him was dark. The fire escape grating was hard and ungiving under his thin buttocks and legs. Had he slept? He raised himself slowly and stood, resting his slight weight against the wall. Trees. He needed to hold the idea of them in his mind. If he could just figure out a way to plant even one, that would be something.
His legs stiff and cramped, Edwin climbed painfully back through the window into the dreariness of the darkened apartment. Half-closing his eyes to avoid seeing the gaping emptiness, he staggered on an uneven path to his bed.
He was dozing when the doorbell rang. He had not heard it for months, but it was unmistakably the doorbell. He was not imagining or dreaming it. It rang again, a long steady ring. The enormity of the hope that flooded his body pinned him to the bed. He struggled to push through it and get up. His left arm and leg tingled, frighteningly numb. He stumbled over clothes and a stuffed elephant and teddy bear littering the floor. At last he reached the door. He opened it in time to see a man disappearing into the stairwell, a tall man like himself, with sand-colored hair like his own. The odor of pipe tobacco assailed Edwin’s memory-stoked consciousness.
“I’m here! I’m still here. Please come back!” His words came out hoarse and frantic, and served to make the man turn. The face, kind and smiling, had the lines of someone familiar with pain. Edwin recognized the pain.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” the man said. “I’m just moving in downstairs and, believe it or not, I came to borrow a cup of sugar!” He held out an empty cup, and in his eyes was a special, gentle glint. “We’re making a chocolate mousse.” His charm was disturbing. It seemed too alive and sparkling, and reverberated strangely in this place where no one ever came. Yet he was much as Edwin had imagined, even if until this moment he hadn’t known his imaginings had a definite form. It was the meeting itself that was not at all as he had imagined it.
Edwin rubbed his throbbing forehead and leaned against the doorframe for support. He could sense the guardedness in the way the man was looking at him, studying his features, searching out the resemblances between them. Was this really his father? Why would his father be moving into the downstairs flat? Did that make sense? Who was “we?”
“I don’t have any sugar,” Edwin stammered. He felt as though he might faint. He hadn’t known this would be expected of him. “I’ll go get some, right away,” he said. “I’m really sorry I don’t have any. I didn’t know that’s what you’d want.”
The man backed away. Some of the warmth seeped out of his expression. “That’s okay, pal,” he said. “Forget it! No problem!” He turned and clattered down the stairs, and in a moment Edwin heard the door of the apartment below slam shut.
Edwin stood in the doorway, his hands opening and clenching at his sides. It had been horrible to see the warmth leaving the man’s eyes. “Believe it or not, I came to borrow a cup of sugar!” Those were his words. It was a test of some kind, a code, and he had failed miserably.
But then the man had said “no problem!” Which must mean he was going to give Edwin another chance! A tremor passed through Edwin’s body. He had to be ready next time, and now he knew what was expected of him. His father was going to give him another chance. A surge of energy propelled him to the closet, where he pulled out the boxes his mother had labeled souvenirs. He rummaged through them in a desperate frenzy, not finding what he wanted, knowing it had to be there. He had never looked in these boxes before. But his mother saved everything, so it had to be here. A wonderful thought seized hold in Edwin’s brain. They could plant the trees together! Working on the trees together would bridge the impossible space between them. His brain whirled with the brilliance of the idea. He told himself to calm down and focus on what needed to be done. Through a roaring in his ears, he forced himself to continue digging into the dusty box.
Why had he said “forget it?” That was so ridiculous. Edwin never forgot anything. But then how would his father know that? A wave of dizziness passed over him. His vision clouded, making it difficult to tell one item from another.
It made sense, didn’t it, that it would take time for his father to reveal himself to him? He had never pictured it happening this way but now that it was happening, it made sense to him. He stopped flinging things out of boxes and stared at the floor. Was there just this rug and the wood floor between him and his father? That didn’t seem possible. Edwin fell forward on the rug.
When he regained consciousness and looked at the clock, it was past midnight. He went on doggedly through the contents of the box in front of him. He knew he’d find it eventually, the card his mother had given him on his fifth birthday, with a clean, crisp dollar bill in it. She had said to save it for something special. It would be enough to buy a one-pound box of sugar.
A kind of peace settled over him as he lost consciousness again. His father had called him “pal.” That was what fathers who love their sons call them.
Mary Anderson Parks lives in Seattle, WA. Her articles have appeared in CRICKET and LOST GENERATION JOURNAL, with stories in JACK and JILL, AFFILIA and MILDRED. She is an attorney for United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.