THE STORY WITH THE NEIGHBORS
My father was a gregarious man, just twenty pounds and a reserve of irritability short of being a cigar smoking jolly fat man. He had a knack for making people like him and would talk to anyone about anything: to the gang of men putting up a new telephone pole about rotting problems in the old poles; the latest Doris Day movie with my aunts; the best generals in WWII with a family friend; the intricacies of bus routes with a stranger on Hope Street, our local main drag. So when the new people moved in next door, he assumed he would have new and regular conversational partners, new and interesting topics to ventilate.
He was at work the day they arrived. With his talent for chat, you would have thought he’d be a salesman or a real estate agent, but in fact he worked for the State Bureau of Business Regulation, where, as I understood it, he was in charge of licensing everything from auto glass replacement firms to architects to upholstery shops.
But it was summer, the air as bright as a new dime, and I watched from my bedroom window upstairs as a green moving van the length of two houses pulled in at the curb while an odd shaped yellow convertible with the top up turned into the driveway. A man came out the driver’s side, a woman from the passenger’s. According to what our previous neighbors, the Schlesingers, had said, this had to be Glen and Carlotta Lee. “A very nice young couple.” He was a scientist of some sort, worked at Wright and Rangle Chemical Company; she worked too, downtown at some book publisher. They didn’t have any children yet.
As nice as the Schlesingers had been to me, it’s always exciting when new people move in next door, like the lively beginning of a new book, and you settle in with happy anticipation to see what will happen. Even more interesting when the characters are unfamiliar types, and these looked as different from the elderly, Arizona bound Schlesingers as they could possibly be. He was tall, lanky, with a narrow face and an unusual quantity of shaggy black hair. She was also tall, and very slender, her dark hair cut like Peter’s Pan’s, wearing dungarees with the cuffs folded and an untucked blue shirt that hung halfway down her thighs. One at a time they reached into the back seat of the convertible and each emerged holding what looked to me like an oversized lunchbox, which was in actuality —as I learned much later — a cat carrier. They went around to the front of the house where the moving men already had the van open and the tailgate down.
Then there was a small crowd coming and going up the three front steps, down the driveway to the back door carrying boxes, chairs, bookcases, couches, boxes, a number of flat padded rectangles of some sort, boxes, lamps, bookcases, mattresses, tables, boxes, bookcases, boxes, and boxes. The couple mixed with the movers as though they were on the payroll. He had a quick impetuous way of carrying a carton in his arms, leaning his long torso over it as if it might get away from him, while she, carrying a long stemmed lamp in one hand with elegant fluidity, seemed almost to dance with it. I was too young to make judgments about social class or aesthetic leanings from their household goods, but they were all clearly different from the Schlesingers’ — slimmer and sleeker, dark curved wood and bright fabrics: all physically similar to the couple themselves.
That evening at supper my father said, “So Davy, what are the new neighbors like?” His voice was really too large for the kitchen, sometimes threatening to clear the table with its strength. “Your mother said you spent the whole day watching them move in.”
“They’ve got a convertible,” I said. “It looks like an airplane. I think it’s a foreign car.”
“No, no. It’s a Studebaker,” said my father, who prided himself on knowing everything, and actually knew quite a bit. “But besides their car, what are they like?”
I thought for a moment, gathering my impressions, so I could state them in a way that would show him what a keen observer I was. “They’re much younger than the Schlesingers,” I said. “They’re younger than you and mom, too. A lot of their furniture looks brand new. And there were a lot of bookcases and boxes, so I guess they’ve got a lot of books. They did a lot of the moving in themselves, but they didn’t carry any of the really heavy things, like couches or tables.”
My father nodded without seeming especially struck by my description, but then I thought of the perfect summary. “I think they’re very modern,” I said.
My father’s teaching method consisted of ‘do this,’ ‘don’t do that’ so he didn’t take the opportunity for a dialogue that would have led me to broaden my description and define more clearly what I meant. Instead he guffawed as if I’d said something funny, and while I was pleased to have made him laugh, I was also frustrated that he didn’t recognize the acuteness of my characterization.
He said to my mother, “Sarah, you should make a cake to bring to them.”
My mother, noted for the perfection of her potato pancakes, was otherwise a superior plain cook, and her desserts were always flakey or moist as required, but, in total contrast to my father, she was a shy woman who was generally mortified when he started a conversation with a stranger at the movie theatre or the grocery store. Among family and friends she was capable of sly humor or pointed irony, but she had only peered briefly through the curtains at the new people, horrified that she might be thought to be snooping. So for my father to suggest that she make a cake to press on perfect strangers was an absurdity to which she responded by asking him if he wanted another slice of brisket.
It wasn’t until two days later, in the evening after work, that my father encountered the male of the pair who had possibly been indoors all that time arranging furniture and emptying boxes. The two backyards were separated by their long asphalt driveway and a three foot strip of grass uncut since the Schlesingers moved out, but while our yard was all flat lawn brightened by the variety of flowers my mother grew and tended, theirs harbored a selection of trees the names of which the Schlesingers had taught me: Flowering Plum, Redbud, Paper Birch, White Dogwood, Pink Cherry. My father and I were going to the garage for the twelve foot ladder so he could change the yard light that had burned out the night before. Glen Lee was standing at the edge of his driveway, tall in black slacks and a gray short sleeve shirt, fists on hips considering the trees, one after the other, with what might have been the pride of new ownership.
“Hello,” said my father, that big voice easily carrying across our yard, followed by him crossing it, and stopping at the edge of our property as if unwilling to breach the border between the two without an invitation. “How do you do? I’m Ira Kress, and this is my son Davy. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
How many times had I been introduced to a stranger this way when I was still young enough to take pride in being Ira Kress’s son?
“Glen Lee,” said Glen Lee, offering not a handshake, but a quasi-salute from his position on the other side of the black-topped driveway. “Nice to meet you.”
Close to, I thought he looked very intelligent, alert, with his head pushed a little forward, eyes scrunched, forehead crinkled as if thinking hard thoughts, nothing less than what I would have expected from someone labeled a scientist. Even his voice, a kind of clipped, practical sounding baritone suggested someone who did important serious research.
My father said, “So are you and your wife from around here or from out of state?”
“Oh. We moved here from Connecticut. Stamford actually.”
“Ah,” said my father. “You’ve transferred from the Wright and Rangle plant there.”
“That’s right!” said Glen Lee, surprised enough that he took a step back and arched his shoulders as though my father had thrown something at him.
“Well, we’ve lived here for twenty-five years, so if there’s anything you need to know about the neighborhood, just ask.”
“I’ll be sure to do that,” said Glen Lee from his new, slightly more distant position.
“And anything you need by way of tools, I probably have it if you need it.”
“That’s very kind of you. Well, again, nice to meet you. I’m sure we’ll see you around sometime.”
Which, as he raised a forefinger in farewell, turned and crossed the yard toward his back door, was an odd thing for a next door neighbor to say, and an unread omen of what relations with Glen and Carlotta Lee would be like, because as neighbors the pair was agreeably, politely, smoothly unsociable and no matter how hard my father tried to get hold of them, they always slipped away. Not being invariably at his heels, I don’t know how many times he tried unsuccessfully to get the conversational ball rolling with one or the other of them, but what I saw always went pretty much the same way.
There’s Glenn Lee getting out of his strange shaped Studebaker as my father and I are unloading bags of compost from our wheelbarrow for my mother. This time Glen Lee is dressed like a businessman after work in a tan suit with the jacket swinging open, hands in his pockets as he ambles down the driveway. When he’s approximately opposite us, my father says, “That Studebaker is a handsome vehicle.”
Glen Lee stops and looks at my father as though surprised to see him there. “Thanks,” he says and gives a little acknowledging nod, almost as if he were taking credit for the design.
“It’s a ’51, isn’t it,” says my father.
“Yes it is,” says Glen Lee amiably.
“You know,” says my father, “I remember back in 1932, one of the other young men in the neighborhood, Bob Carson was his name, showed up with a brand new Studebaker Six, also a convertible, a four door sedan, cream colored with light brown trim. A beautiful car. He paid eight hundred dollars for it.”
My father would never ask how much Glen Lee has paid for his Studebaker. Among the ‘don’t evers’ he’s taught me is ‘don’t ever ask anybody about their money, religion or politics.’ But he pauses ever so slightly to give Glen Lee space to tell how much, and when the space isn’t filled he goes on, “Of course it was a very different shape and style from yours. But it developed eighty horsepower. I imagine your car runs about a hundred and twenty?”
“Something like that.” says Glen Lee.
“Naturally, Bob wasn’t very anxious to have anyone else drive it. But he was so proud of it, he wanted certain people he could trust to see how well it handled, so I did get a chance to drive it. It really was wonderful to drive. It had a Syncromesh Transmission which meant you didn’t have to double clutch to shift. And it handled like a dream.”
My father pauses again, this time, I imagine to let Glen Lee make some comparison with the way his 1951 Studebaker handles. Glen Lee says, “It’s true Studebaker made some very fine cars, very much in the forefront of automotive development.” His tilts his wrist slightly to look at his watch. “Well. Gotta run I’m afraid. Nice talking to you.”
And there we are on the sidewalk coming back from the shoe store where my father has just bought a pair of brown, wing-tip Florsheims, and there’s Carlotta Lee, tall and slender in a simple blue dress belted at the waist, with many blue buttons down the front. She’s reading as she walks, going step glide, glide step on flat leather sandals.
“Hello,” says my father. “What are you reading?”
Though he’d only finished high school, he was in fact a great reader: two newspapers a day (morning and evening), Life Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, novels, histories, books of popular science.
Carlotta Lee raises her eyes from her book slowly as though nothing in the world, not even my father’s big and sudden voice, could ever startle her. She gives him a mild curious look, as if wondering why he’d ask. “ ‘The Groves of Academe’,” she says. Her voice has a pleasing burr, like a cough drop with honey in the middle.
“Ah,” says my father, “I don’t know that one. Who is it by?”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s an academic satire. Faculty politics in a small liberal arts college.”
“Sounds interesting. I just read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ In Life. A wonderful, wonderful story. Have you read it yet?”
“I can’t say I have. Hemingway isn’t exactly my cup of tea.”
“Really? I’ve read everything he’s written. What don’t you like about him?”
“Well, you know. Just different tastes in writing. Anyway.….” She motions with the still open book toward her front door with a fluid gesture as if offering it to the house, “…nice talking to you. Be seeing you.”
Now it’s clear that if someone who owns an unusual car is unwilling to expatiate on its merits, and someone who reads is unwilling to enter into a friendly literary wrangle, there’s no hope of communication. My father either refused to see this or refused to accept it.
“I don’t understand those people,” he said to my mother. “How can they be so unfriendly? You can’t have a decent conversation with them. They’re always running off before you can say anything.”
“Some people don’t want to be friends, Ira. These people are younger than we are. They have their own lives, and they’re different from us, too. I don’t think we have anything in common.”
This was not a dinner table conversation. It was a special session in the living room, my mother in her usual place on the scroll back couch, my father on the edge of his giant marshmallow of an easy chair, cigar to his mouth between index and middle fingers. When he was content, his good humor was signaled by a luxuriant draw and a slow, fanning exhale, but now I was seeing the quick angry little clouds of smoke that marked his moments of real irritation.
“I’m not asking them to be friends,” he said. “I’m just asking them to have a normal conversation, not rush off like they were trying to get away before I could ask them for a loan.”
“Maybe that’s what they’re afraid of ,” said my mother.
“Sarah,” said my father in his be-serious tone.
Sometimes, when my parents had certain conversations which they believed I was too young or too impressionable to hear, they adjourned to their bedroom. Since this subject was apparently impersonal enough for my ears, I thought I could make a contribution. “Maybe they’re Russian spies,” I suggested. “And they’re afraid you’ll figure it out from the way they talk.”
Neither parent responded to my offering. Instead, my father said, “Maybe they’re anti-Semites.” Always possible, and even likelier at that period when the virus was more widespread and open among ostensibly civilized individuals.
My mother was unconvinced. “Of course,” she said, “That’s why they moved to the city with the largest percentage of Jews in the state, then moved next door to a Jewish family, in the most Jewish section of the city, where there are three Temples, a Jewish Community Center, and two Jewish delicatessens within eight blocks of each other.”
“Well there has to be something that will explain their behavior. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense at all.”
She said, “I’m sure they’re just afraid if they start having long conversations they’ll be obliged to start acting like friends, and they just want to keep to themselves.”
“That’s ridiculous. No one’s saying we have to live in one another’s kitchens. Neighbors should talk to one another like neighbors. It isn’t right for them to run away from you like that. It makes nothing out of a person.”
“Ira. It’s not important. We lived very well without them before they ever got here. Just ignore them. Who knows, maybe if you ignore them, they’ll start up.”
This was not advice my father was likely to follow.
The couple didn’t take very good care of the Schlesingers’ yard, and when cared for at all, it was Glen Lee on the job, once in a while watering the lawn, sometimes hacking at the weeds along the far edges with a rusty sickle, sometimes cutting the grass, his lanky body making one leg of a triangle with the handle as he leaned into the push mower. Their green hose was left in a giant snaky tangle on the ground. This gives my father an opportunity to say, “I’ve got an extra hose hanger you can have. I was going to have another tap put in, but it turned out we didn’t need it.”
“Oh, thanks,” says Glen Lee. “We’re fine,” pushing a coil of hose to one side with his foot, ignoring when it creeps back as he moves off.
And there’s Glenn Lee standing over a large rectangular carton in his driveway — who knows what it contains? — but it’s a good five feet long and three feet high. He’s got his hands on his hips in that characteristic posture, and he’s eyeing the box as if waiting for it to move, or daring it to.
“Want a hand with that?” my father asks.
Still looking down on the carton Glenn Lee raises his right hand and wiggles it side to side as if he were shaking his head no. “That’s all right,” he says. “I’ve got it.”
He pushes his right foot forward and toes the box with the tip of his brown loafer; the box moves about six inches. Then he pushes with his left foot; another six inches. Then the right foot. And shuffling his feet this way, the carton hissing and scraping, he chivvies it all the way down his long driveway, into his garage.
My father turns away.
Not that it was always that easy to catch either of them standing still. He had a way of rushing past with his eyes straight ahead that said he really had to get ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ was. Or he’d step out the back door of the house to the Studebaker parked in front of the garage in such a way that it was clear he had to keep his eyes on the driver’s side to correctly orient himself to the car. While she never rushed, simply slid elegantly past with an expression that said she was so lost in thought that the world around her had become invisible.
They both ignored me entirely as I cut the lawn with our push mower, or pitched a rubber ball against the garage door striking out or walking one batter after the next. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it because adults ignored kids all the time, even if they lived next door. Not the Schlesingers, but the Petersons on the other side of us, who regularly spoke to my parents about the weather or street repairs or the new Chinese restaurant that had opened on Hope Street. They pretty much didn’t acknowledge my existence, even when I was with my parents.
But because my father was so upset by the Lees, I was indignant on his behalf and I took revenge for him by turning them into silly adverbs. Each time one went past without seeing or noticing me, I’d say to myself that he was behaving glenly or she was acting carlottaly, and I’d laugh at them to myself. That they had no idea what I was thinking made this seem more insulting than if I’d said it to their faces.
One day, though, something entirely unexpected and startling happened. From out the back door of Glenly and Carlottaly’s house a very large black cat with a white chest, wearing a red collar, went streaking across the lawn, followed in a flash by Carlottaly, barefoot in red shorts and a floppy white top, calling “Mandrake, Mandrake, stop.”
Mandrake, the cat, not the magician, not only didn’t stop, but as if he’d been planning it ever since they’d hauled him there in that cat carrier, headed directly for the Paper Birch, leaped onto the trunk and scrambled up to a fat horizontal branch some seven feet off the ground, where he immediately sat on the bare bark before where the foliage started and began grooming himself with intense feline concentration. Carlotta Lee stopped beneath the branch, craned her head back. “Oh, Mandrake, you rotten cat,” she said in loving tones with that little burr to her voice, “Come down from there.”
Mandrake, like some ancient Egyptian cat god, far too superior to attend to the prayers of an unimportant mortal, ignored her.
I was in a quandary. I knew that in our garage there was not only the twelve foot ladder, but a five foot step ladder as well, tall enough for her to climb and reach the obstinate cat, at least as long as it continued to sit on the horizontal branch. I was mad at them, and thought it would serve them right if I said nothing and let her figure out how to get the beast down. But it seemed mean of me to not help when I could. I tried to imagine what my father would do. “We’ve got a ladder,” I said.
I didn’t know if she didn’t hear me because my young boy’s thin voice lacked conviction and projection; or if she heard and in the Lee family tradition, ignored me. She said, “Mandrake, you silly thing. Come down, kitty,” and proceeded to make high, enticing ‘kitty, kitty,’ noises for the next few minutes, while Mandrake now examined the sky as though there was no human pleading below him. Finally she said despairingly, “Oh, Mandrake, what a pain you are.” And then, suddenly cheerful. “You wait right there, Mandrake. I’ve got a treat for you.”
She turned and sprinted across the carelessly mown grass toward the house, disappeared inside. Minutes passed and I stood there in the summer sunlight, still holding the rubber ball I’d been playing with, and wondered if the cat would obey or find some other way to aggravate Carlottaly. At one point it stood up, but just arched its back, turned around and sat in place again.
I was starting to lose interest, a cat on a branch not in itself deeply entertaining, and the question of whether it would or would not descend less than suspenseful, when Carlottaly emerged from the house, re-crossed the lawn carrying an oblong china platter on which was perched an entire chicken — raw, I thought. She stood under the tree and held it up between her hands almost at the level of her forehead. “Mandrake,” she said, “Smell this. Come down and it’s all yours.” She moved the platter from side to side as if to let loose the odors.
The cat stood up on the branch, raised his nose slightly; his sharp pink tongue curled out and around its mouth; he let out a long meow, and without further ado, launched himself from the branch straight down landing half on the platter half against Carlottaly. She staggered backwards a couple of feet, the platter tilted, the chicken slid to the ground, the cat followed the chicken, ending up four footed on the grass, and tore into the carcass like a tiger with its prey. Absolutely unflustered, Carlottly scooped up Mandrake with one hand, the chicken with the other, and glided elegantly back to the house. The platter remained on the ground for later collection apparently. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen live, not on TV, that is, and I was laughing helplessly, in tight, high pitched gurgles, but she never even looked my way. She may not have heard me.
Ordinarily, I’d have told my parents about a scene so remarkable, but this time I couldn’t bring myself to, because I felt as though there were something shameful about my part in it. I could’ve merely told about the cat, the tree, and the chicken, but they were too intimately tied to the humiliation of having offered a ladder and been ignored. As well, I felt that if I said anything, it would be like adding to whatever my father felt at being ignored or cut short by them — though I would never have assumed or believed or wanted to believe that what he felt could be called humiliation.
Up to now, in the face of my mother’s reasonableness and disapproval, my father had restrained himself, showing his annoyance only by more frequent sessions of angry cigar smoking. I had no idea that if I’d said something, he might have become indignant on my behalf, found justification for speaking his irritation again, instead of just smoking it. But not to worry, he found his justification elsewhere, because the two also ignored my mother, who would mostly have been seen by them as she tried to insert our single car into our double garage or as she gardened. They never even made a comment on the beauty of her flowers — the pink and white columbine, purple and white allysum, purple delphiniums, white and red hollyhocks.
“Doesn’t it bother you that they ignore you the way they do?” he burst out to her.
“No, Ira. It doesn’t bother me. They have their own lives and I have mine. Why should that bother me?”
Knowledge of my mother should have suggested that she’d be pleased at not having to make conversation with people she’d known for less than ten years, but he insisted. “It must bother you.”
“No, it bothers you.”
“Well, it should bother you.” He said, resenting on her behalf. “Who do they think they are? Treating us as if we didn’t exist. Neighbors don’t act that way. I think there’s something wrong with them. They don’t have any common sense. Or common courtesy.”
For a mild mannered woman, my mother sometimes got remarkably angry with my father, and in this case, she’d had enough. “For heaven’s sake, Ira. What’s the matter with you? You’re acting crazy. What do you want from those people? They won’t talk to you? That’s no reason for you to be thinking about them all the time and walking around with a sour expression like someone with permanent indigestion. It’s not a right. They don’t have to be your friend. They don’t owe you anything, and you don’t need them. Just leave them alone or you’re going to drive me crazy too.”
“You don’t understand,” said my father.
Now it was possible for my father to say those very words, as I had heard before, in an almost pleading way, in fact asking my mother to understand him. Just then, though, he said them angrily, curtly and insultingly, meaning that my mother was somehow not alert enough to the nature of life and the world to appreciate the true and important meaning of the neighbors’ behavior the way he did.
My mother was entirely alert to the implications of my father’s emphasis, which pushed her anger to the next phase. She tightened her lips, turned her back, and walked out of the room, notifying my father that she was settling in to give him the silent treatment until he apologized to her.
He was rigid with frustration, and didn’t seem to remember that I was there. At least his clinched teeth “Damn!” gave that idea, since, at my mother’s insistence, he never swore in front of me. He shook his head three or four times, then he left the room, but in the opposite direction, heading for the front porch where he sat, fired up a brisk cigar and brooded.
Yet he must’ve apologized, because the next day they were very cheery with one another and talking again, just not about the neighbors. After that, my father refrained from expressing or showing his irritation, though at times his good humor seemed more like a demonstration of capability than the genuine article. He made no effort to engage the couple, either, though when Glenly sped by on foot as if hurrying toward something just out of range of my father’s vision, or Carlottaly went elegantly past too lost in thought to notice him, he took on an uncharacteristic hard speculative expression, possibly the same he wore before deciding to deny a license to a dubious applicant.
So when Glenly did a wonderfully stupid thing that left him in an impossible position, I expected may father’s reaction to be the same as mine. Which only goes to show how little I understood him.
Our lawn mower wasn’t performing up to standard, flattening the grass in some spots, tearing it up in others, and my father decided that at the least the cutting bar needed adjustment. So here we are coming down the back steps out of the air conditioning into the sun and heat, my father carrying a canvas ground cloth rolled up around a variety of tools — screwdriver, file, pry bar, this and that, all in case more is needed than a simple adjustment. I’m ready to run to the garage and roll out the lawn mower.
And there at the birch tree is Glenly in a blue work shirt, sleeves rolled above his elbows, standing not quite below the horizontal branch on which Mandrake the cat not the magician had plunked himself days previous. Glenly’s right arm is stretched above his head as he saws away at the branch close to the trunk with what I recognize as a back saw — a kind of blunt rectangular saw with a metal strip on its back to keep it rigid. A very fine line of sawdust drifts down from the cut he’s making.
My father stops at the bottom of the stairs as if immobilized by amazement, and even I know that the kind of saw Glenly is using is totally unsuited to the work he’s doing, because my father has a similar saw in his basement workshop that he uses in a miter box for fine carpentry jobs. I also know my father has a longer, cross-cut saw down there, and if Glenly were a neighbor with whom he was in communication, he would offer it, and the step ladder as well, and advice as to the best way to accomplish the cutting.
He offers none of it. Just recovers mobility and continues out onto the grass where he unrolls the canvas, lays out the tools. I run to the garage, back the mower out of its dank corner, tip it slightly onto its rear wheels, roll it across the driveway, and over the grass next to him. He turns it over. “Don’t ever touch the edge of the blades,” he says, as he starts to examine its interior.
While he gives it the once over, tests the rotation of the blades, fiddles with the screwdriver, we keep glancing at Glenly working away at the birch branch with the wrong saw. He pushes and pulls on one side for a while, then moves to the other side, pushes and pulls there for another while, then back to the first. Every now and again, he stops, transfers the saw to his left hand, shakes his right arm, flexes his right hand, rubs his nose with his bare forearm, as if the little drift of sawdust was making it itch. From where we are, I can see the sweat shining on his cheeks.
Now it’s a well know fact that a beaver can chew through a six inch tree in a matter of minutes, so it makes sense that a man, even using an inappropriate saw, could, with patient application, eventually cut through a two foot thick hardwood branch.
It turns out that the lawn mower problem requires only a simple fix, two screws my father turns a little one way or the other, and I’m about the test the machine on a patch of grass when I hear, not a crack, but a crackle, what you’d hear if someone were trying to crumple up a plastic chair cover. It’s the branch breaking loose, not quite falling, just slowly sinking, and under it, his hands raised as he tries to hold it back, Glenly amidst the foliage of the secondary branches as they gradually settle down around him. He must’ve seen that the branch was about to finally break off of its own weight, and stepped away and back without calculating the extent of those secondary and tertiary branches, or the weight of the whole thing either, since instead of jumping out of the way, he’d obviously been under the illusion that he could catch it and push it to one side.
Instead, Glenly is slowly pressed to his knees as the branch angles down on him. He keeps pushing upward, yet slowly, slowly tips backward until he’s completely flattened and enveloped by the smaller branches and the foliage, except for one extruding bent arm and his hand pulling at the immovable mass. The main branch is still held up at the trunk by something I can’t see — strips of wood and bark, I suppose — so that the whole is like an angled broom with the bristles pressed flat against the ground, and of course, Glenly. The back saw is on the ground a couple of feet away.
“Ha, ha,” I say, a non-laughing, serves you right ha-ha.
My father, without looking at me and despite a momentary upward curve of his lips, makes a single cut-it-out slash of his left hand, starts across the yard calling out, “Are you all right?”
From under the branches, Glenly calls back, “Yes, I think I’m ok.”
“Well hold on,” says my father. “I’ll get you out of there.”
A frenzied movement under the foliage, Glenly apparently making another effort to escape. My father says, “Careful, you’ll bring the whole thing down on you.”
The movement subsides. My father picks up the back saw. “I’m going to have to cut away all these small branches, but you have to stay still until there’s room for you to slide out.”
A grunt from under the foliage that might have been assent.
My father starts to work with the inappropriate tool, saying in the meantime, “So how come you decided to do this branch in the summer? It’s not really the best time to prune a tree, you know.”
And Glenly, from amidst the leaves, begins to explain in what will be noted as their first long conversation while my father proceeds slowly and carefully, branch by branch, to free him with his few scratches, sore shoulder, and possible bruises from where he’s trapped himself. Some days later, my father invites the Lees to drop in on a family party and sample my mother’s irresistible potato pancakes, and what with one thing and the other, they can’t say no.
Norman Waksler has published fiction in a number of journals, most recently Madison Review, Chaffin Journal, Edgar, Epicenter and The Tidal Basin Review. His most recent story collection, Signs of Life is published by the Black Lawrence Press. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For a nice picture of his Cairn Terrier, as well as further information, see his website, Normanwakslerfiction.com.