The Ash Tree

Laura’s foot nudges the package that has fallen to the floor next to the gas pedal. They weren’t expecting a parcel unless it was something on back order that finally arrived. The return address was simply a box number in Tallahassee. The flannel nightgown or the non-leather belt for Ron? No, too big for a belt, too small for a nightgown. A friend surprising them with something exotic to eat?

At home she slits open the carton, addressed to “The Marshes” (could be an anniversary gift). Whatever it is, she hopes it’s the right color or the right shape. A nuisance to have to send it back. Inside the carton is a mauve canister, the kind usually packed with fragrant, expensive tea. She looks at the label. No souchong oolong here.

The canister contains the ashes of Edgar Bronson. There’s a note inside the carton from Edgar’s son, Steven. “Sorry to be so late with this. He wanted you to have it.”

She flings the tin across the room, missing the newly blooming cyclamen. Him again! I might have known he wouldn’t ever leave us alone. Edgar had died six months ago at the age of seventy. She and Ron attended the funeral service. Then he was cremated. Now he was back.

Ron and Laura Marsh live on a hill in Connecticut overlooking the Housatonic River. Their home has always been a magnet for their friends, ever since it was only a weekend retreat for them and their two daughters, now young adults living on their own. Even today, the girls remember that Edgar Bronson once ate nine ears of corn at one sitting. That’s the latest version. Each time the story is told, there are more corns.

Laura goes out to the garden. Under the 150-year-old ash tree lie the cremated remains of Edgar’s second wife Susanna, much beloved by Laura and Ron. She spent the last month of her life with them, hoping even then for a long remission so she could resume work on her newest screenplay. Susanna loved the garden and had asked to be buried there. Before she died five years ago, there was blight in the garden with the ash tree particularly hard hit. After Susanna’s ashes were buried under the tree, it made a recovery that had been denied to her. What would happen now that Edgar was angling for space beside her? Blight on the tree again, and on Laura’s life. And how come Ron hadn’t told her that the ashes were coming, since he surely knew that Edgar would want to be here? Edgar had probably instructed Ron and put it into his will, just to make sure no one contradicted his wishes.

Even now Ron is in thrall to his friend, his “master” as he refers to him, a term that makes Laura shudder. Mentor, okay, but not this archaic medieval terminology as though Ron were just a lifelong apprentice. My nemesis, my archenemy, is how Laura refers to Edgar. And now Edgar continues to keep Ron enmeshed. For Ron is Edgar’s executor. This entails not the administration of finances (Edgar had no money) but the maintenance, preservation, dissemination and storage of Edgar’s oeuvre, the product of almost half a century as one of America’s foremost composers.

Closets that used to contain family photo albums, old tax records, mementos of the children’s prowess in school and camp, extra coffee pots, and party supplies have been given over to orchestral and vocal scores, notebooks and diaries, librettos, correspondence, stage models, and musical instruments. Ron is charged with inventorying, cataloging, dealing with lawyers over copyright issues—other composers constantly plagiarize Edgar’s work—faxing and phoning archives all over the country to find a permanent home for his materials. To be just—and Laura believes she is—Edgar Bronson composed some of the most important works of the twentieth century, including several operas with contemporary social themes. Though mostly unappreciated in the United States, Edgar had been revered abroad and his work played at international festivals. There was a time when he was blacklisted in the United States and his work went unperformed and unrecorded. “He never named names,” Ron liked to remind Laura. Okay, granted, he was admirable, he did good work. Maybe he was a genius, she conceded. Some of his music still haunted her.

Every genius needs an amanuensis, however, and when the girls were in junior high school Ron became Edgar’s low-paid or “payment-deferred” assistant, relieved to have been liberated from his television network job as a music coordinator which required him to placate corporate sponsors (and to collect a steady weekly paycheck). Money was tight and they borrowed from their parents. Edgar was not happy when Ron finally accepted a position teaching theory to adults at a neighborhood music school, which rendered him incommunicado two nights a week. They were still living in Manhattan then.

To hear Edgar say over the phone, “I had a thought,” made Laura gnash her teeth. It was the equivalent of “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Edgar’s “thoughts” translated into late-night hours of discussion between the two men at Edgar’s studio or his apartment while dinner waited, children grew fretful, weekend plans were scuttled, vacations postponed.

Wily Edgar tried to draw her into the work process, particularly if he was working on an opera, inviting her to join their discussions over dinners which he cooked. By then his wife Susanna was already succumbing to leukemia but did get out of bed to be with them. Admittedly Laura enjoyed sparring with Edgar, needling him whenever she could. Unlike his responses to Ron’s suggestions, he often complimented her on her astuteness. And unlike Susanna who was an enthusiastic partisan of Ron’s contributions to a libretto, never had he given Ron credit for his ideas, while incorporating them into his work. Ron said he didn’t need direct acknowledgment, it was satisfaction enough to have had an intellectual impact.

Dear Ron, she wrote one night when he hadn’t come home by 2:00 a.m. The girls and I are going to California as originally planned. If you can’t come along, you can pack up and leave. This isn’t a marriage. It’s a ménage à trois, only with him it’s your soul he wants. In the morning, with Ron already gone for the day, she found a note and a rose from him: I can’t live without you. I will talk to Edgar. Surprisingly, Ron spoke with Edgar and they left for their vacation. Not once did he mention Edgar while they were away. Now Ron will blame me for his intellectual stagnation, Laura thought at the time, unable to wholeheartedly enjoy their stay on the West Coast.

Call him, she had urged more than once, to her husband’s surprise. I want to know how Susanna is. So you call, Ron said.

“Did he ever admit that he was wrong about anything?” Laura asks now, trying to keep her tone light. They are preparing for the “ceremony” of burying the ashes under the tree. Edgar’s last companion Diana will come with her new gentleman friend. She’s thirty-five now, the same age as Edgar’s son Steven, who hasn’t responded to the invitation.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t rain,” Laura says giddily. “There’s nothing worse than soggy ashes.” Ron laughs. “But seriously, did he ever admit that you were right—about anything? About changing a flat to a sharp, the way to pack a car trunk, whether to turn left or go straight ahead . . ?” What she doesn’t bring up is the omission of Ron’s name from the program of Edgar’s last opera, a powerful drama about political corruption, produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ron had written virtually all the music for the last act.

“And who’s bringing the Holy Grail?” she asks. “I mean, do we just bury the canister?” (Which is presently in the potting shed near a bag of mulch.) “After all, Susanna is in that silver goblet.”

“He left instructions,” Ron says. “He was very specific. Kate will bring a suitable container.” Kate—ah yes, Kate, one of the nubile disciples, plucked from a classroom in some small Midwestern women’s college where Edgar had been a composer-in-residence for a month, and transported to Edgar’s Union Square studio, replacing the bedazzled young Danish woman who had followed Edgar from a festival in Copenhagen. Kate is from a wealthy family in Grosse Pointe. She came out as a debutante. Then she was disowned by her family for subsidizing one of Edgar’s controversial operas with her trust fund.

What was it about Edgar that drew these young women? He was stringy, graceless, given to pedantry, subtly macho, and had bad teeth. Only Susanna had stood up to him. Maybe because she was almost his age and not decades younger like all his other women, like Diana. How Ron must have envied Edgar his conquests. Maybe he was planning to follow in his master’s footsteps. So even then she would not be free of Edgar’s influence. He had even infiltrated the children’s lives. When Marly was studying Spanish she had taken to calling him El Jefe. “When is El Jefe coming, Dad?”

“Why not put him in with the raspberries,” Laura asks, thinking of the thorns and nettles. “That’s where we put the cat—even the kids were comfortable with that, remember?”

“Give it up sweetheart, Ron says gently. “He wanted to be near Susanna.”

And so did you, my sweet. Laura remembers a tipsy Ron coming home late, really late, from a post-performance party to which she’d been invited. She shunned these events, hating to be the outsider but paying for her absence with agonies of jealousy, waiting up for him. “I was dancing,” he reported thickly when he lurched into the bedroom. Laura was furious. She loved to dance and could never get Ron onto the floor. “I don’t care what you do at these parties,” she liked to say to him, “but if I find out you danced . . .” “Susanna made me do it. Then she wanted to go someplace quiet. I said I had to get home. See what a good husband I am!” No, it would not have done to be Edgar’s sexual rival.

“Speaking of sexual rivals–” Laura says.

“Who was speaking of sexual rivals?” Ron is startled.

“Nobody. I was just thinking of Edgar’s son-Steven. Now there was a good-looking boy.” Steven and their younger daughter Marly, had known each other for years. They dated for a while and lived together briefly. Then something went wrong between them.

It must have happened around the time of the memorial service for Susanna five years ago. Marly and Steven had come up together for the weekend. The house was packed with guests invited for the day by Edgar for Susanna’s memorial service. By midnight, though, only the Bronsons, father and son were left, along with Marly. In the middle of the night, Laura heard raised voices, Steven and Marly arguing. None of her business. She turned over. But the next day, Marly’s eyes were red. She was not speaking to Steven. “That bastard,” Ron said to Laura in the kitchen, away from the other three. “What did Steven do?” she asked. “Nothing, that’s just it. Nothing.” Marly’s bed had not been slept in. “It’s just a lovers’ quarrel,” Laura said. “Don’t get yourself all exercised about it.” Next thing she heard was that Marly and Steven had split up. Then her daughter moved to Chicago. Soon after that, Ron accepted a job as a music producer for public television, leaving Edgar’s employ, if it could be called that. The two men kept in touch and saw each other occasionally. Ron was no longer on call, to Laura’s relief.

“I forgot to tell you,” Ron says now. “Steven called while you were out. He can’t make it because of ‘an ecclesiastical commitment.’ ” To Edgar, who was virulently anti-religious, his son’s embrace of Christian Science was a personal betrayal. Already terminally ill when the conversion occurred, perhaps Edgar realized that Steven could not be counted on in a medical emergency and feared that his son’s prayers would only hasten his death. Too bad he isn’t coming, Laura thought. She might have taken the opportunity to find out what happened between him and Marly, who was so close-mouthed.

It is a picture-perfect day. Diana and her friend César have brought Kate, who is clutching an unwrapped Waterford goblet to her bosom. The goblet is tulip-shaped, the kind of vessel in which, if you were young, healthy, and not worried about fat and cholesterol, you might eat a triple sundae (and hold the cherries). Maybe that’s what Kate did, in some private ceremony of her own.

Laura has always been fond of Diana ever since she appeared at Edgar’s side, a budding musicologist, another acolyte from a composer-in-residence program. But Diana outlasted them all. She has a Modigliani face, a passion for astronomy, and a zany streak. In her search for a cure during Edgar’s last days, she turned to alternative remedies including the recitation of spells against the evil eye and the waving of a peacock feather over his head. Now she’s studying corporate law, a field Edgar despised.

Diana will do the honors today. They have assembled around the base of the ash tree, all except César, who stands at a discreet distance, camera poised to record this pagan ceremony, happy no doubt to see the last of his predecessor. Holding the canister, Diana smiles bravely at the others. Are we ready? Kate steps forward with the goblet and is about to hand it to her. “Wait a second,” Diana says. First she has to get the canister open. There is a slight contretemps as she tugs at the lid which does not come off. “Anybody have a can opener?” Laura inquires, but fortunately her words are lost in a gust of wind. Ron steps forward and wrenches the lid off the canister. Diana smiles gratefully. Now the plastic bag containing the ashes must be slit open. Use your teeth, Laura thinks. The body and the blood. Steven should certainly have been here. Ron has his trusty Swiss Army knife and cuts the bag. Diana and Ron both sneeze. “Allergies,” Laura says.

Kate kneels and inserts the crystal goblet into a hole about a foot deep that Ron dug the night before at the base of the tree, not too far from the spot where Susanna’s ashes are buried. With an ordinary garden trowel, Laura scoops out a few spoonfuls of Edgar Bronson from the metal container and pours them into the goblet. César has begun to snap pictures. Once the goblet is filled, the rest of the ashes must be poured into the ground. Diana closes her eyes and shakes the remaining contents of the bag into the hole. Ron picks up the canister, inverts it and gives it a good tap to make sure nothing is left. It is a good-sized container, reusable, just right for storing the licorice candies to which Ron is addicted.

Diana now reads a love poem written by Edgar upon the death of his second wife, Susanna. Ron and Laura stood at this very spot five years earlier and listened to Edgar read it while Susanna’s ashes were interred. Diana stumbles while reading, substituting Edgar’s name for Susanna’s throughout, but the effect is incongruous. While she reads, each of the others takes the trowel in turn and shovels a symbolic handful of soil over the burial site. Laura is afraid to look at Ron. His eyes are teary but she will not be able to comfort him. Instead she puts her arm around Diana and says, “Why don’t we all have something to eat?”

After a while, everyone becomes slightly tipsy, having consumed most of a vodka melon, a concoction brought to America by Edgar, who got the recipe from a Russian conductor in Moscow during the cold war. It was Diana’s idea to serve it today. The melon needed two days’ advance preparation and Laura, good scout, had taken care of it.

The recipe: Open a square plug in a ripe honeydew melon. After scooping out the seeds, line the cavity with honey. Pour in as much vodka as the melon will hold. Replace the plug with scotch tape and put the melon in the sun for two days. To serve, cut chunks of saturated melon and scoop out the liquid as you go.

“This is the best way to remember Edgar,” Kate says, vodka dribbling down her chin.

“Edgar once ate ten ears of corn right here,” Ron says. “He thought he was superman.”

“You mean he wasn’t?” Laura asks. “That’s the first I hear of it.”

“He could be a real son-of-a-bitch,” Ron says, to Laura’s delight.

“He was my rival,” she says emboldened, helping herself to another scoop of soused melon. This stuff goes down like sorbet. “He almost broke up our marriage.”

“You don’t know anything, Laura,” Ron snaps. “Sometimes you are totally oblivious.”

“Did I miss something?” she asks. She recognizes the bilious tint on his face. He’s had more to drink than any of them.

César abruptly stands and pulls Diana up. “We have to go. The car has to be back at the rental place by six. Let’s go, Kate.”

“It’s so beautiful here,” Kate murmurs.

“Did you happen to bring a resume?” Ron asks her. “One of my research assistants may be leaving soon.”

Like father, like son, Laura thinks. The melon is going fast. Kate is reluctant to leave with Diana and César. “I don’t feel there’s been closure,” she says tearfully. “We need to watch over the—ground?—for a while. See it in the moonlight, maybe watch the sunrise?”

With ill-concealed impatience César says roughly, “Suit yourself, Kate. You’re a big girl. We’re leaving.”

Ron appeals silently to his wife. They have two empty bedrooms. Just for one night? Laura shrugs. “Okay,” she says. “Kate, you can stay overnight. But I have students coming early in the morning.” Laura tutors immigrant adults. Kate promises to be gone by then—if she can get a ride to the train station. “Can you be up by six?” Laura asks her. “I can take you in.” She’s hoping to avert a friendly offer from Ron to drive the girl. Kate says she might even stay up all night. A kind of vigil, if they can just lend her a blanket to wrap around herself?

“Does she have any experience?” Laura asks Ron when they are alone. “Beyond showing Edgar her Phrygian mode?” It is hard just to pronounce Edgar’s name, to keep a neutral tone.

“The best experience a young musician could have.” He turns over, exhausted from the day.

“Steven should have been here,” she says in a burst of anger. “He’s Edgar’s son, after all.” Again, she remembers that weekend of the memorial service for Susanna. In her mind it is like a weekend depicted in a French movie where guests are staying in a chateau. During the day, all good sports and light flirtations, picnics (ten ears of corn!) and drives in the country. At night, doors open, whispers are heard, women sob quietly, men groan. A period piece.

Ron appears to be asleep. The house is entirely silent. Is Kate really going to spend the night outdoors?

Now Laura hears some muffled sobbing from downstairs. The noise has disturbed Ron. “Check the children,” he mumbles.

Listening to Kate crying downstairs in the dark, Laura remembers her daughter’s red-rimmed eyes, the morning after the service for Susanna. Steven taciturn, Edgar cool, affable. Why did Ron call Steven a bastard? And today why did he accuse her of being oblivious? What was that fight about anyway between the two young people, five years ago?

Laura is beginning to understand. Yes, she had been oblivious that weekend. This was no French chateau and Ron wasn’t referring to Steven at all. It was Edgar.

Edgar must have gone after their daughter Marly that night. And Ron found out.

You knew,” she hisses into his ear now. Under your own roof.” She punches his shoulder, then draws back frightened when he shudders and sits up, breathing hard.

“What happened, what is it?” her husband says wildly.

“Shh, nothing. It’s all right.” A heart attack is not something she wants to add to the list of Edgar’s crimes. “You were snoring and I woke you. We buried Edgar today, remember? Go back to sleep. Don’t worry about Marly,” she adds irrelevantly.


Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer is the author of Goodbye, Evil Eye, a book of short stories about Sephardic family life. The book was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. She's also co-author, with Manfred Kirchheimer, of the nonfiction We Were So Beloved: Autobiography of a German Jewish Community. Her short stories have been published in New Letters, North American Review, Arts & Letters, Kansas Quarterly, Bridges, Carolina Quarterly, and the online Cantaraville One. Her work has been widely anthologized and aired on National Public Radio and included in the NPR series "Selected Shorts." In another life she was a folk singer, translator, and academic editor.