“While you’re not doing anything—again, today,” Manda said, “you can get estimates on having that tree cut down.”
Ben rolled over and propped himself against the mahogany headboard. He pushed a strand of gray hair off his forehead and watched Manda pick through a dozen or more perfume bottles that took up a quarter of her vanity. “Think you have enough of them?”
She selected one and put it aside. “You tell me. One for every Christmas, birthday, and anniversary since you stopped using your imagination.”
“Forgot Valentine’s Day.” Ben stretched and thought about getting up to take a shower. But he preferred to watch Manda, dressed only in her bra and panties, move toward the closet to select her outfit for the day. The fifteen years difference in their ages should have seemed less as they’d grown older. But Manda appeared younger as he’d aged, and it wasn’t only the chestnut-colored dye in her hair or the subtle use of makeup. She looked better every year, and it crossed his mind to tell her.
Instead, he said, “What about you? The last six years of woodworking tools? Not to mention the gardening shit—tiller, seeder, and what all.”
“Thought you’d need something to keep you busy.”
“If I want a hobby,” Ben said, “I’ll pick it myself.”
“You getting up?”
“Must be nice,” Manda said.
“You had your time at home.”
“Not the same.” She pulled a blue print, sleeveless dress from the closet and walked over to spread it across the end of the bed. “Not with a dog and three kids underfoot—your kids.”
Ben pulled his feet out of the way and sat up on the side of the bed. “Since when is that a distinction?”
“Since always. Of course, it is. How could it not be?”
“You love them. At least I thought—they’re yours, too.”
“No. I mean, yes—I do love them. But they can never be…”
Manda shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Seems it does.” Ben stood and took a step toward her.
She backed away and put a hand up like a traffic cop. “I don’t mean to suggest that I resented them in any way.”
“It’s just that, somehow,” Manda moved toward the bathroom, “we didn’t get around to having our own.”
Ben followed her. “I never knew you wanted—”
“You never knew a lot of things. And before you start up, maybe I didn’t know at the time, either.” She pulled her deodorant from the shelf and began to apply it.
Behind her, Ben watched her movements reflected in the mirror. Her strokes were slow and deliberate; her lips were pursed. His impulse was to wrap his arms around her waist. But his mind kept asking why she hadn’t told him.
Manda snapped the lid back on the deodorant and dropped it onto the counter. She turned to face him. “Once they were all in school, my only thought had been to go back for my graduate degree, and then to start my practice.”
“That was all your decision.”
“Yes. It seemed important at the time. I mean with three children to raise.”
“You’re saying I didn’t provide well enough?”
“I’m saying, it wasn’t anyone’s fault—exactly.”
Manda threw up her hands. “I don’t know. Maybe the time was just never right.” She turned away from him to place the deodorant back on the shelf and to straighten the towels on the rack. “How did we get onto this anyway? We were talking about the tree.”
“What tree is that?”
“Don’t play dense, Ben. You’re all too good at that when it suits you. The dead locust, of course.”
“Don’t think it needs to come down. Even if it did, why hire someone? I cleared all those trees along the drive.”
“That was years ago, and it didn’t matter where they fell. Besides, you don’t need to be exerting yourself.”
“I had to keep them off the driveway, which I did. I’m still perfectly capable of—”
Manda spun back around. “That locust could very well take out my veranda.”
“If not for me it never would have gotten built. Or have you forgotten?”
“Have you ever let me?” Ben stripped off his undershirt and briefs.
“Right, and you’ve made good use of it with me. Those perfect views of sunsets over the valley and the fog rolling in and the snow.”
“And you admired,” Ben said, “how the late evening shadows of that locust fell across the veranda steps and onto the deck.”
He pushed passed her and stepped into the walk-in shower.
“Sure, back when the tree was vibrant. And before it lost its stability.”
“It’s done no such thing.” Behind the glass wall, he pulled on the tap, and then let out a yell. “What do you shower with, ice water?” Ben twisted the knob hard toward hot.
“About the tree…” Her voice raised an octave. “Do you hear me?”
Ben stuck his head under the warming water and hoped she had an early client appointment.
The slam of the bathroom door was only partially muffled by the blast of hot water.
Fifteen minutes later, dressed in shorts and a pullover shirt, Ben looked out the bedroom window over the roof of the veranda at the locust tree near the corner of the house. A couple of finches darted around the cavity in one of the lower limbs where he usually left sunflower seeds. There would be half a dozen or more of those squawky, little birds zipping around before long. At least he wasn’t the only one that still valued that old tree.
Downstairs, Manda sat at the small table in the center of the kitchen, taking the last bite of her bagel. She had toasted one for Ben as well and poured them both a cup of coffee. Ben sat down opposite her and picked up his cup.
Before he could take his first sip, she said, “That tree has to go.”
“According to you.”
She hesitated, but only a moment. “Yes, according to me. What of it? For all of the past twenty-eight years I’ve been hearing ‘I’ll handle it, dear’ from you.”
“And that’s exactly what I did. Don’t tell me for a minute that you didn’t appreciate it.”
“Then you can handle that tree now.”
“But I won’t.” Ben said through a mouthful of bagel, too lightly toasted for his taste.
“It hasn’t produced so much as a leaf in years.”
“Leave it alone, Manda.”
“You or the tree?”
Manda brushed bagel crumbs from her side of the table onto her empty plate. Without looking up, she said. “Next blast of heavy winds could easily bring it down—”
“Right—onto your veranda. Way the ground slopes, most likely would drop the other way.”
“You can make up an answer for everything, but the point is, why risk it?”
“It’s not ready.”
“What? The tree? You act like it has feelings.”
“You act like I don’t.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” She tossed the plate down, spilling crumbs back onto the table.
“Remember me saving that locust from those bulldoze-crazy construction guys? The tree will come down when it’s ready and not a moment sooner.”
“What of the cost when it falls onto the house.”
“Afraid you won’t get your perfection back? I’ll risk it.”
“Like you risked all our savings on the market? Talk about a crash.”
“Not a joke. That was money meant to go into this house.”
“They were solid investments.”
“But you should have cashed out sooner. You should have seen it coming.”
“Was a little busy at the time—you know—heart attack.”
“Right. So just bad timing.”
“I didn’t plan to be half dead in the hospital when I needed to—”
“If I’d been aware. If you’d kept me informed. If you’d maybe had an investment banker to manage the account for fucks sake.”
“I am—I was an investment banker.”
“Wasn’t that. You just had to be in total control. God, Ben, even doctors have their own doctors.”
“That apply to psychologists, too?”
Manda stood, shoved her chair back, and began to clear the table. “What matters is the house did not get finished.”
“The house certainly was finished by then.”
“Not the veranda. The one thing I really wanted.”
“The one thing?”
“The main thing and you know it, you knew it. You can’t pretend you didn’t know that.” She picked up his half-full cup and took it over to the sink. “Got to go. I still have a job to get to.”
“You’re the one wanted me to take that early retirement offer. Too stressful you said, after that heart attack thing. Remember?”
“Don’t tell me you miss it, a job that worked you fifty, sixty hours a week. Then get another. Take mine.”
“Listening to psychotic people whine all day?” Too much like home. He got up to get his favorite mug from the cupboard.
“Whatever,” she said on her way out of the kitchen. “Just make the calls.”
Would she never be done with this? Ben poured the last of the coffee from the pot into his mug. He followed Manda into the main hall.
“Come with me,” he said.
“Don’t talk. Just come.”
He grasped her left arm just above the wrist and led her down the hall and out the back door, onto the veranda, down the steps and toward the left back corner of the house.
As they approached the locust, she muttered, “If nothing else, it’s an eyesore.”
Ben stopped, and let go of her arm.
Manda tilted as her two-inch heels sank into the soft lawn. She reached out to steady herself, but stopped just short of touching Ben.
“Eyesore to whom?” he said. “The Fergusons a mile away?”
“To me. Besides, with this dead tree gone we can put something else here.”
“Something useful, I suppose.” Ben said. “This tree has plenty to offer. Look at that.”
Manda squinted toward the upper trunk where his finger pointed.
“See it? That’s a nuthatch.”
“He’s upside down.”
“Cool, right? That’s how he feeds. And that hole there, that’s where the squirrels store their nuts for the winter.”
“Nuts. Right. I don’t need a nature lesson, and I sure don’t have time to spend my day staring at a dead tree.”
“And the finches—let me tell you about the finches.”
“I’m late.” Manda headed back toward the house. She paused at the top of the back steps, ran her hand along the scrollwork of the nearest post before stepping up onto the oak floor boards of the veranda. “Four years, Ben.” She turned to face him coming up behind her. “It took me four years to save the money to build this.”
“You were never home.”
“Then you know how that felt for me all those years before.”
“It was my job. It was what it took.”
“I also did what it took. Do you know what that cost me? Do you?”
“It was your choice. You didn’t need to—”
“I did. I needed to finish what we started. To make our ‘forever home’ complete as planned.” Manda backed toward the door. Her gaze took in the whole of the veranda. “All this—years of conference presentations, teaching workshops and college classes. Do you think I enjoyed that? It wasn’t even good money. I hated every minute of it.”
“You never told me.”
“No. If you knew me, really knew me, you’d have known.” She tugged at the screen door and held it open. “I have a job where I talk to people one on one for a reason. So yes, speaking from an auditorium stage or in front of a class of strangers was agonizing. It never got easier. I hated doing it, and I hated—”
“Me? For making you need to do what you chose to do?”
Manda stared at him. “You never knew that I had sessions with a colleague over this, either, did you? Just to get through the whole thing—among other reasons. Yes, psychologists do consult other counselors. Why would we not?”
Ben moved toward her. But Manda stepped back into the hall. “Forget calls to tree surgeons.” She turned and entered the house. “I’ll do it myself.”
Following her, Ben slammed the door behind him. “Tree morticians would be more apt.” He stomped past her down the hall.
In his wake, Manda gathered up her purse and briefcase on her way through the house to the front door.
Ben followed her onto the porch and watched her totter down the front steps.
When she reached the bottom, she said, “I’ll have someone here this afternoon.”
“They’ll have to get by me first.”
Manda turned to face him.
He took a gulp of coffee and stared down at her over the mug.
She hesitated a moment before turning to leave. On her way to the car in the driveway, she called back over her shoulder, “Threats now, is it? Have a good one, Ben.”
He glared after her until the car disappeared around the first curve in the gravel drive leading to the main road. She’ll do it, too. Can’t tell her a thing anymore. He doubted that she could get anyone to come out that quickly. Still, when they did come, he’d be ready.
Ben moved down the steps and around the house. He opened the side door to the garage, tossed his coffee mug onto the lawn, and then pulled the chainsaw off the shelf by the door. He liked the feel of it as he held it before him, getting used to its weight in his hands. He could hear the news anchor now: Crazed man defends dead locust. Holds off tree surgeons and police with a chainsaw.
He lowered the saw to his side. Then what—arrest, trial, prison? Ben kicked his mug across the yard. He moved with slow, deliberate steps toward the tree. Reaching the locust, he leaned his back against the trunk while a scatter of finches fluttered skyward with a unified screech.
“I know, I know. No seeds yet.” Ben slid to the ground, knees raised, and the chainsaw at his side. “Could build you a feeder, I suppose. Wouldn’t be the same though.”
Ben thumped the back of his head against the trunk. “Sorry old gent, I can’t think of a way to stop her. Might slow her down, but—hell, she isn’t listening.”
Too busy feeling sorry for herself and complaining. Like he was some fool for taking charge of his own investments—it was his job; and not even close to being equivalent to doctors and head shrinkers. All his fault, right? That she was silent, but he should have asked? That she made choices to do what she hated in order to get what she wanted? That he should have just known stuff. That he should have known her better.
Above him, a couple squirrels raced upon the branches, sending flakes of bark down on his head. Ben grimaced. He shifted, straightened his back and brushed the bark bits out of his hair. Could be that Manda didn’t know him so well either if she thought he was going to sit still for this shit.
From where he sat, Ben had a direct line of sight toward the veranda. The woman was right about one thing—the height of the tree coupled with the distance to the back of the house were exactly right. It’s that important to you—is it Manda?
He pushed to his feet bringing the chainsaw with him, then stroked the trunk of the locust. “Maybe I can’t see a way to save you. But you can serve a final purpose. You can help me show her one thing.”
Ben yanked the chain and the chainsaw grumbled into life. “I still have what it takes to bring a tree down exactly where I want it to fall.”
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