My grandmother’s house is perched on the peak of a hill in a small affluent town in Pennsylvania. When Indian summer has slipped away and I wake up to the first chill of fall, it feels as if the house and surrounding woods are best suited for autumn. If it were magically this all year around I wouldn’t miss the heat or the greenness or frigid air of the other seasons that seem to gallop in and out, unannounced at times.
I suppose I am partial to the fall because of the sycamore tree that stands twelve feet high, recessed in the backyard of the house. The leaves change to a deep yellow, and when the sun shines through in the late morning and early afternoon they become delicate pieces of paper gold. As a child it was my favorite tree to hide behind when playing hide-and-seek, and my father used to sometimes pull a chair beneath it and read when we drove from New York to visit. Oftentimes I was content touching the pale gray bark; its mottled surface reminded me of an old elephant, wise and permanent-seeming.
The house was left to me after Grandma Ginny passed away two years ago. It was only the following fall that my father became ill and died. When I moved from New York to the house I didn’t grasp the undertaking of inheriting her belongings that had been left to me; I had invited the family over on several occasions to freely go through any room and take whatever they pleased. My Aunt Judith took the piano and several of her violins – Grandma had played in an orchestra and had retired only a year before her death, my cousins packed boxes with books – mostly contemporary art and philosophy, my Uncle Michael took several photo albums and framed pictures, and the rest was left for me to manage.
The first time I invited friends over it felt odd observing them sitting on my grandmother’s living room sofa that she had purchased with my grandfather forty years prior. When one of them lit a cigarette I immediately imagined Grandma snapping her head in their specific direction and declaring, “That’s the most disgusting thing you can do in a person’s home. That and not bothering to flush the toilet after using it.” But I was a smoker myself, as my father had also been for most of his life. It was an indulgence, although much of the time it felt like a betrayal to myself.
This morning I was awoken by Cleopatra, Grandma’s Siamese cat. Since adopting my dog Chump, a chubby-faced bulldog, who sleeps in his crate near the kitchen, Cleopatra has taken to staying upstairs exclusively, and she lays in bed with us – my boyfriend Walker and I – claiming us temporarily but with absolute possessiveness. The sun beamed through the half-open curtains casting a long thin line across Walker’s back. He had stuffed his head beneath two pillows, and I guessed he would be asleep for at least another hour. I hoisted myself over him and padded towards the bathroom wearing Walker’s old slippers. Cleopatra followed, the tinny bell around her neck jingling behind me.
Soon after I went downstairs to grind coffee beans and boil water for the French press. The sink was filled with old dirty plates Walker hadn’t bothered washing. It was a quiet war between us. I had vowed to stop doing his share of work when I knew he spent the majority of his time looking for a job – so he claimed, or reading. But it unnerved me to return from work and find him sitting on the couch in the exact place I’d left him in the morning. I’d spoken to my sisters about the dilemma of his overall laziness or what I kindly referred to as “unmotivated.” They both said I was enabling him, and that I was part of the problem, that I needed to stop doing everything and leave him the opportunity to take some initiative. But I have realized over time that he is as unmoving as a stone. Hard, rigid, impenetrable. Yet I love him. And he had known my father. He had driven with us to the hospital on the many trips to my father’s chemotherapy sessions. Walker’s love for me was blind, unconditional. I could not imagine spending my life with someone who had not known my father.
Despite this, there was the unshakeable irony that I was now more isolated than ever since my father’s passing. Once Walker moved in, my stepbrother and cousins visited less. At the time, I had naively assumed that it was because, within several years time, they had all gotten married and had children. It was during the holiday gatherings that it occurred to me their aloofness was intentional, an orchestrated conspiracy to keep their distance. It could be because Walker had moved in and didn’t have a job or because Grandma had left the house to me in her will. As one of the few women among a family of men, I recognized their inability to communicate with straight-forwardness. And what’s worse – they were a clannish bunch.
“Walker, I’m leaving,” I said.
The figure beneath the blanket vaguely stirred. Then, a muffled question: “What time will you be back?”
“I have four appointments today. A big gap between the last two. Maybe I’ll stop in,” I said. I walked over and lifted the blanket to find his head. Kissed the top of it. “Please do the dishes,” I added softly, immediately chastising myself for saying anything.
A soft grunt. “Okay.”
It was cold enough that I needed to wait a while for the car to warm up. I sat and wondered: if this were the movie of my life what song would be playing at this exact moment I sat in my car? My massage table in the trunk with a bag of starched chlorine-scented sheets, living in my grandmother’s home where my father was raised, my jobless boyfriend still in bed sleeping – what song could sing my life? Joni Mitchell’s “My Old Man” came to mind and then Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” They are beautiful and generations behind me, and I’m twenty-eight.
As I drove down the street I watched the towering trees above me adorned with the deep lush spray of colors. A strong wind charged through the air and I felt the vibrations as the car shook. Large black birds squawked as they flew overhead. It was only a matter of weeks before it would begin to darken earlier in the day.
The day moved at an agitating slow pace. One of my clients was twenty minutes late for her appointment, but expected me to compensate the time although I had another appointment immediately after. Another complained of the chronic pain in his hips, and despite months of consultation, he had yet to follow my recommendation to lose weight and begin walking as a means of exercise. As I pressed the heel of my hand from the base of his back up to his shoulder, I had wicked thoughts of Walker and what he was doing at that exact moment. I envied the expanse of time afforded to him by his parents, who still deposit a small sum of money into his bank account monthly. It would be easy to blame my fatigue for the fact that I did almost close to nothing when I returned home from work. I also knew that I resisted reading or doing anything vaguely productive because of my childish sense of entitlement that I had worked all day and needed to do nothing. In the midst of this logic I was succumbing to Walker’s malaise.
As I drove home that evening I left the radio turned off. There was usually a jazz station I listened to, but I needed the silence to empty my thoughts and prepare myself for what was waiting for me at home. Oddly there were no cars on the road. Stores that were customarily open were vacated and their doors locked. turned onto my block started to pull up the driveway. The two garbage cans we kept by the side entrance had fallen over and were blocking my path. I left the car and walked over to place them back by the house and I realized they had still been full with our recycled garbage. I gritted my teeth, cursing Walker, as I wandered up and down the front yard collecting plastic water bottles, yogurt containers and beer bottles that were hiding behind tall stalks of grass. Surely, he must have heard the cans crashing over and left me the mess to clean up. I parked the car and went inside.
The kitchen light was on and the rest of the house was dark.
I heard the hum of music and followed it to the back of the house. The one room we had reserved as our creative space – neither of us had ventured to even set up our materials – had glass French doors which were always closed.
Chump, lying on his side and too lazy to move, wagged his tail.
He was sitting behind an easel I had never seen before. The table lamp we usually kept on one of the end tables in the living room was lit and sitting on the wooden floor in the corner of the room. The music was loud. Rachmaninoff. A frenzied piano and violins burst from the speakers and, realizing he still couldn’t hear me, I stood, hiding in the periphery, and watched him. He leaned down, and from the motion in his arms, it seemed that he was working with a paintbrush. His long brown hair fell to the center of his back and even in the dimness of the room I could see his clear green eyes, intense and focused. The light from the lamp cast shadows of his frame against the bare white walls.
I heard a sudden thud from the kitchen. I walked back to the entrance and saw that several of the houseplants on the windowsill had fallen on the carpet. My succulents, all of which I had tended to with trial and error were strewn on the floor, and I winced as I squatted and gingerly lifted them back into their plastic pots, relieved at least that I hadn’t planted them in the ceramic ones I had made in pottery class. The curtains billowed and then sucked against the screen of the window. I was about to stand up and close the small gap that usually remained opened.
“Oh God!” I practically yelled, literally jumping to my feet.
Walker was standing above me, his hands hanging limply at his sides. “You scared me!” I said. “That’s what happened.” And after a moment, “Something knocked the plants off the windowsill.”
The wind chimes in the backyard clanked angrily. We heard Chump galloping through the living room, and he raced past me into the kitchen.
“What the hell is going on?” Walker asked.
Chump wouldn’t move even if his tail were on fire. I walked up the steps two at a time and searched through the rooms for Cleopatra. When I saw that she was hiding under a bed in one of the spare rooms, I let her alone and came back downstairs.
“I think we’re going to get a hurricane,” Walker said.
“Why? Did you hear something on the news?”
He looked at me wryly.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I forgot you don’t read the papers or listen to the news. Your delicate sensibilities couldn’t handle it.”
“That was a bitchy thing to say,” he retorted and disappeared.
The music stopped, and I heard the soft creak of the French doors close. He started walking quickly through the house and closing all of the windows.
He returned, his face flushed, and said, “Let’s take Chump and go to the basement.”
“Cleo’s up there,” I said. “I’m scared to touch her.”
We had both suffered minor bites from her and knew better than to go near her if she didn’t want to be handled.
“Shit,” he said. “We can’t stay up here trying to get her out.”
We heard a sharp loud crack coming from the backyard. I ran to the door and felt Walker’s hand grip my shoulder. “Don’t do that.”
“I want to see what it is,” I said, knowing I was being foolishly stubborn.
“It could be a tree,” he said. “Let’s go downstairs.”
As if to prove his point, within seconds we heard a crash. Both of us ran to the kitchen window and saw that the fire pit in the backyard had turned over.
“Damn,” Walker said under his breath. “I had just filled it with logs for a fire. That thing was heavy.”
Despite the situation, I wanted to comment on how surprised I was that he’d actually left the house to do something productive. Before I could say anything he abruptly walked out. I watched him run towards our neighbor Ruth’s house. His shirt and pants flapped frantically against his body as he knocked on her door. I saw Ruth open the door a fraction and within seconds of speaking to her Walker ran back to the house.
“She said it’s a hurricane, but they don’t know how bad it’s going to be. I’m going down,” he said. “Let’s go.”
It suddenly started raining. We could hear the loud tapping against the window. He looked at me, shaking his head at a loss for what to say. We took Chump and climbed down the creaky stairs to the cellar. Walker went over to the slop sink and pulled a flashlight from underneath. I didn’t even know we had one.
“It looks different down here,” I noted.
When my family and extended relatives had come to Grandma’s house to take what they wanted there was still a good deal more left that I was unwilling to part with. Walker and I had trudged everything down to the cellar, where it could stay tucked away and out of sight, where I could not be reminded of how much there was still to go through. The last time I had been to the cellar it was a chaos of boxes, old lamps that no longer worked or needed rewiring, antique books that needed to be salvaged or donated, furniture that was too expensive to reupholster, and other knickknacks that I wouldn’t spend the time or have the inclination to give my attention to.
“Let’s sit here,” he said and pointed the flashlight to a chaise lounge sofa that I didn’t recognize.
“Where did that come from?” I asked as I held onto his arm and settled myself.
The fabric felt soft and lush. Chump tried climbing on, which was no surprise.
“No, buddy. Not here,” Walker said, and held him by the collar. “Sit on the floor.”
I took the flashlight from him and scanned the room. The room looked mostly empty with the exception of three lamps that were sitting on sheets of newspaper and tools I didn’t recognize on the floor.
“Where are the boxes of books?” I asked.
“Upstairs,” he responded.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they’ll keep rotting down here, that’s why,” he said. “Books that old can’t be in extreme temperature. It gets damp down here.”
“I didn’t noticed them upstairs,” I said. “Where?”
“In the bookshelf by where the piano used to be,” he said. “I put them all the way on top so the Chump and Cleo couldn’t get to them.”
We sat and listened to the wind. My naïve hope was to be spared having to hear what was happening outside. I wanted it to begin and end swiftly and go upstairs to assess the damage, all with the prayer that Cleo hadn’t been injured. We heard a sound similar to a steady whistle that morphed into a low moan.
“I can’t believe we can still hear everything from down here,” I said.
“I can,” Walker said. “I wonder how long it will last. We could be down here for a while.”
The thought of that made me uneasy. Walker and I spent most of our time together with a distraction – the TV, one of us cooking in the kitchen while the other read or pruned the backyard – activities that kept us home-bound yet apart.
Without asking, I took the flashlight that was resting on the chaise and slowly grazed the room. It was nearly empty. In one corner of the room there were stacks of records placed neatly into a wooden cabinet I thought I had never seen and my grandmother’s phonograph I had completely forgotten about. The floor was made of cement and had never been finished or carpeted, but it was swept now, dull and clean. Finally, I pointed the flashlight to the chaise we were sitting on and stood up. I remembered the wooden frame being nicked and scratched from years of use and the velvet worn and flat. Now it was royal blue and the wood was a deep gleaming brown.
“You’ve been coming down here,” I blurted.
“Yes,” he said.
“How come you haven’t been telling me? And since when?” It sounded like an accusation, although I was embarrassed.
“Since a while now,” he said. “I obviously haven’t gotten my shit together, but I can help in other ways.”
“I didn’t know you knew how to refurbish and fix things,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked again.
He sighed. “At first I thought I would surprise you, but then….. you came home every day surveying, assessing,” he said. “And I didn’t think you deserved to know.”
“Deserved?” I repeated, my voice filled with disgust.
“You’re being an asshole.”
“You’re embarrassed,” he said, “and you’re busting my balls when you’re the one feeling stupid.”
“You should feel more stupid,” I retorted, the words leaving me too glibly, “that you’re almost thirty years old and don’t have a job and your parents support you and you’re living in my house, my grandmother’s house and don’t have to pay a fucking cent – “
“And you’re embarrassed because of that,” he shot back. “Because you have a boyfriend who is all those things, but you’re also embarrassed because I’ve been spending months going through your grandmother’s things and trying to fix them, save them… and you didn’t even notice. And need I remind you that I always pay for the groceries and the electric bill – “
“And don’t do shit around the house,” I interrupted him. “No dishes, cleaning, dusting – none of it. I work ten hours some days and come home to find you reading the same fucking book you cracked open that morning. Get your shit together!” I yelled. I stood up. “It’s not even like I have lofty aspirations of having a baby with you or anything. But get a job. Not even a career. Something, for God’s sakes. We are not on the same playing field, we are not equals in this. I’m tired of being the adult.”
A loud crack resounded from upstairs. It wasn’t thunder or lightning. We waited and just as we were about to sigh a breath of relief another crack sounded off. It was sharp and clean.
“It’s the tree,” Walker said.
“In the backyard?” I asked.
“Is there another one?” he said sarcastically, the heat of our exchange singeing his words.
“Could it fall on the house?” I asked.
“It could,” he said. “That would be great for me at this point.”
“Be nice,” I said.
“Be nice,” he repeated flatly. “Be nice. After calling me a lazy, mooching shit, I’m supposed to be nice.”
It was quiet now. Chump had been resting his head on my feet, and I could feel his breath on my ankles. In the faint darkness I felt him look up at me and then he rested his head back again.
“Did you consider that maybe I’ve been doing these things to compensate for the fact that I haven’t gotten a job?” he said quietly. I knew this was his apology. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, his words coming out like a sigh. “That’s the truth. I don’t know if I should go back to school and get a Masters or just get any job so I can make some money. I don’t know which will piss you off or keep you happy, which is best for me in the long run, and if you’ll have the patience for any of it, which clearly you’re running out of. And I get it,” he added. “I get it. You see your friends getting married – “
“I don’t care about that stuff. I just want you to do something that will make you happy now and in the long run. And I want to travel. This can’t be it. Us, this house, with Chump and Cleo. I feel like we’re in our fifties and near retirement. It sucks.”
It was terrifying to speak so honestly, yet I pressed on. My mouth was dry, and as if disembarking from a turbulent flight, my legs were quivering. I wanted to sit back down. I knew I had to say something to repair the damage of my words, that they would somehow be irrevocable. But my pride made me stall. I tried to look away.
“Thank you for doing all of this,” I said, the words leaving my lips heavily.
Walker got up from the chaise and went to the foot of stairs. “I wonder if it’s over.” He started ascending the stairs.
“Look for Cleo,” I called out, sitting tightly, unwilling to move just yet.
I heard the door creak open and the sounds of steps falling heavily towards the second floor. Only moments later I heard his voice clear, “It looks like it’s over. Cleo’s good,” he said. “I wish I could say the same about the rest.”
“What does that mean?” I rose with panic and charged up the stairs.
“It’s the back room, really,” he said and disappeared.
I followed him to the room where he had been painting and saw that he had closed the French doors behind him. He was hunched over on the floor kneeling, his hands working in mechanized motion. “Don’t come in!” he yelled, his voice slightly panicked. I was already standing over him trying to survey the materials he was scrambling to collect and somehow conceal. The canvas was larger than I thought. It was a painting, as I had suspected. The backyard of the house and the birch tree beautifully drawn and half-painted. It was the only aspect of the painting that had yet to be filled in. Walker turned over a photograph that was lying on the floor. It was a photograph of the backyard that I kept in the top drawer of my night table.
“I knew it was going to get too cold to sit outside and paint,” he said.
“How long have you been painting this?”
“A month now,” he said. “I took the photo from your drawer in the mornings and put it back before you came home.”
He stood up and walked over to the dining room table and set it down.
He sighed. “The window is cracked in there,” he said. “But this looks like nothing happened to it. Good.”
We sat awake through the evening, waiting once again, but this time for the fate of tree. The air outside was eerily calm. All we could hear was the sound of the cracking. I pictured a jagged zigzag line within the center of the sycamore, imagining how it would fall and when.
“Could it fall on the house?” I asked again.
“Probably not,” he said this time, and I wanted to believe his words.
Waiting for the inevitability of the tree falling was the same clawing sensation I felt days before my father had died. I had risen every morning noticing the slow and significant deterioration of his frame, his face darkening with each breath he took. I was living in this house then; Grandma had already passed away and I had taken all the time off work that I could to stay with him and my mother in New York. Hours upon returning home to Pennsylvania my sister called to tell me. I sat in Grandma’s rocking chair that faced the backyard and stared at the sycamore tree, my heart still. Walker stood behind me, his fingers combing through my hair as if he was trying to extract the grief out of me. I watched the sun cast shadows of the branches on the fading green lawn and could not even bear picturing my father and I playing by the foot of the tree.
Now, at early dawn, we heard the sharp crackling again and in spite of it all, I pulled myself up from the couch, where I had finally drifted off, and went to the window. By the time Walker crossed the living room to join me the tree snapped in the center and was slowly descending. I imagined an elephant keeling over, the enormous fall frightening and inevitable. As if in slow motion, it leaned quietly to the ground and lay still.
“Wow” was all I said.
The top of the tree fell behind our newly painted two-car garage and all that was visible was the body of the tree. Walker disappeared, and I heard the sound of the faucet from the kitchen. I stared at the tree as I had the day my father died, but this time with wonderment.
“Do you want to go look at it?”
Walker was standing next to me holding two mugs of a coffee. He was wearing an old beat-up afghan around his shoulders. I took one of the mugs and walked out to the backyard. The air was damp and chilly. I stood in front of the fallen tree, regarding the strangeness of the space it had created now. I leaned over and touched the bark again, feeling that same sensation I had as a child. The trunk had remained rooted to the ground, and I wished that it could propagate somehow, the way my plants tended to.
“We could carve out the inside of the trunk,” Walker said. He was standing behind me, still wearing the ridiculous afghan. “We could plant flowers inside of it. It’ll look pretty.”
I thought of his painting, and for the first time since my father’s death my eyes welled up. I remembered sitting stone-faced in the passenger seat when Walker had driven us to the cemetery. “I thought heartache was just an expression,” I had told him. “But it’s not true. My heart is literally aching. It hurts. I never knew it could hurt this much.”
“It can always be here,” Walker said. “The roots are in the ground.”
I left him there and went back inside. I saw his painting as I walked past the living room table and stood over it, amazed at the intricate details and the soft colors of autumn Walker had been able to paint so finely, so remarkably. Suddenly I felt the warm fur of Cleo at my feet, surprised to see her downstairs. I picked her up and pressed her to my face and gazed at the painting again. I heard Chump running across the lawn in the backyard and looked through the window. Walker stood holding his mug of coffee in one hand and threw one of Chump’s rawhide bones in the air, whistling for him to catch it. I put Cleo down on the rug and went into the kitchen, opened one of the windows halfway. There were dishes to be washed. I turned on the faucet and held my hands under the cold, running water, waiting for it to turn warm. From outside, the howl of the wind and the sound of the rustling leaves tickled my ears, reminding me that winter was coming.
The MacGuffin, Spring 2017