The Tree Child

The Window, oil painting by Teresa Fasolino

 

I’m letting the lights decide.   Whichever way they flash WALK, that’s the way I turn.

 
 

The only reason I got dressed today was because Phillip said a walk would be good for me.  From the bedroom window I saw him standing by the car, rubbing the sponge around and around the bright red metal. “Cool,” Laurie called that color when she went with us to buy the car. “Be daring, go red,” she said, already mocking.

Lately Phillip has been giving himself assignments. WASH CAR,  he’d written on the calendar. RAKE LEAVES.

“Why bother?” I asked when I managed to go outside. By then he was pulling the rake back and forth in neat lines. “The leaves will be all over the lawn again tomorrow.”

“It helps to keep busy,” he said.

I looked up and down the street. The same in both directions. “So which way should I walk?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

That’s the problem, I felt like telling him.

The streets are all named for trees: Elm, Pine, Maple.  “How imaginative,” I joked when we moved to the suburbs so Laurie could grow up in a “healthy environment.”  The houses are lined up in a row, every front door painted the same shade of green, borders of hedges cloned into identical shapes. “Dullsville,” Laurie called it.

I’m too tired for this useless walk.  “Exhaustion.” That’s what I told Mr. Sinclair when I informed him he should look for another teacher.  Better than telling him I can’t be responsible for anyone’s children. “Parental paralysis,” I could toss off. But my sense of humor seems to have vanished, too.

The other teachers were always asking how my daughter’s doing now that she’s “on her own.” Her own what? I wanted to say. Knowing they were relieved it wasn’t their daughter who’d torn up those college applications, run off somewhere. The lunchroom’s a coffee chorus about their children:  medical degree, law, MBA, married wonderful man, woman. Am I the only mother who gets a failing grade?

I’m drained from all those battles before Laurie exploded out of the house with her list of grievances, a teenage stranger.

“We used to be so close,” I told her.

Laurie with her clever comebacks. “Jimmy says you confuse Mother with Smother.”

I can’t even remember which one Jimmy is, of those boys whose cars Laurie would hop into, drumbeats blaring.

“Be home by midnight,” I’d say.

“Don’t tell me what to do, I’m not a child.”

Where is that smug mother so sure she had life under control?  The teacher standing in front of her classes with such authority?  Not like this woman who hides in her house.

Not like Phillip either, going to his office each morning shaved, dressed, intact.

The Maple Street light doesn’t seem to be changing.  My foot hangs over the edge of the curb, waiting. I used to play a trick when Laurie was little, telling her I could make the light change. I’d listen for the click and shout, “Abracadabra!” Laurie would clap her small hands, deceived into thinking her mother was powerful.

“Which way?” I ask no one. The wind blows the scarf off my head, into the lot across the street that’s been vacant since a house burned down there last year.

I cross to rescue my scarf.  It’s settled against the large oak tree that towers over the rubble: a tangle of overgrown weeds, broken Coke bottles, dented beer cans, charred pieces of wood where a family used to live. I run my fingers over the rough bark. How strong the tree is to survive so many storms.

There’s a rustling above me. Looking up I see two boys sitting on wooden boards spread between the higher branches, grinning down at me.

“Don’t tell,” one of them says.  He has dark hair curling around his face, like an angel I saw in a Renaissance painting. Standing up on the shaky boards, he grabs hold of the branch above him. “I’m king of the jungle,” he calls shouts, swinging his thin body back and forth.

I should tell him to be careful, but I don’t have the energy. I walk to the corner.  The light isn’t changing.  How am I supposed to know which way?

There’s a cry!

Turning, I see someone lying on the ground beneath the tree. I can’t move. He’s struggling up, lurching a few steps, falling into the gutter. I run then. It’s the Renaissance boy.

The other boy’s letting down a rope ladder. “We was just playing.” 

I can’t stop the spinning in my head.  Why didn’t I warn him to be more careful?

“Can you get his parents?”

“Don’t,” mutters the boy in the street. 

“Joey doesn’t want his dad to know,” the other child says, scrambling down the ladder. “He’ll be mad.”

I look up and down the street, but no one’s in sight. “Get his parents!”

He dashes across the street, disappearing down the block.

A car spins around the corner.  I jump in front of the boy, waving my arms. The car skids around us, barely missing me.

“Are you crazy?” the driver shouts. “Get your kid out of the street.”

“Help!”  But he’s raced off.

I don’t want to be here. I can’t be responsible for this boy, for anyone. He’s whimpering, lying on the cold ground. I take off my scarf and slide it under his head.

A small truck’s coming, NICK’S REPAIRS painted on the side. I stand in front of the child again, waving at the driver. I’ll be lucky if I don’t get hit by one of these cars.

Pulling up to the opposite curb, a gray-haired man jumps out.  “Accident?”

“Yes. Please get help,”

“I’ll put the kid in my truck and get him to the hospital.”

“He shouldn’t be moved.” Where did I dig up those words? Yes, when Laurie fell from the top of the slide, hitting her head on the gravel. Eternity while we waited for the ambulance. “Good thing you didn’t move her,” the doctor said. “Less chance of permanent damage.” What’s “permanent damage?”

“Do you have a phone?” I ask the man.

“In my truck, but. . . ..”

“Please call for an ambulance.”

“Okay, lady. It’s on your head.” He hurries to his truck.

The boy’s falling asleep. Shouldn’t he be kept conscious?  I learned that when I was in charge of the school playground at recess.  Children were always getting injured.

Bending down, I touch the boy’s shoulder. “Your name’s Joey?” He doesn’t answer. “Open your eyes!” He looks up sleepily. “How old are you?” No answer. “Nine?”

“Okay, an ambulance is on the way.”  The driver’s standing in front of us, holding a thermos and two plastic cups. “Want some coffee?”

“No, thanks.”

“Chilly,” he says.

Chilly for the boy. He’s wearing jeans and a thin sweater. Sitting in the street beside him, I rub his shoulder, watching the woman who’s doing this.

“Don’t sit,” the man says. “It stinks from dogs.”

“Yes.” Staying anyway.

“Your kid?”

“No. I just happened to be passing by.”

“That what you call luck?”

I look up at him. Steam from the coffee is blurring his face.

“I couldn’t decide,” I stammer, “which way to walk.” 

At Elm – or was it Pine? – I was almost knocked down by a girl speeding past on Rollerblades.  I shouted something but she couldn’t hear me, barricaded behind earphones. Like Laurie who had stopped hearing me, earphones always tuned to some woman wailing about love.

It was weeks after she left before she phoned.

“How are you, Laurie?”  And where?

“Fine, Mom. And you?”

“Fine.”  Liars, both of us.

“Do you need money, Laurie?”

“You think that’s why I’m calling?”

“No, dear. I just . . . .”

“I’ve got a job helping in a martial arts school.”

“When did you learn to do that?”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.  I just. Nothing.”

“I  can’t stand it when you get that wounded tone. You should hear the karate  teacher.  She’s a really strong woman.”

“I see.”  But I was talking to the dial tone.

“She’ll be all right,” Phillip keeps saying. “We just have to wait.”

There’s no WAIT on the lights.  Either STOP or WALK.

“It’s my fault,” I told Phillip. “I should have been stricter.”

“I don’t know why you keep blaming yourself.”

“I know you don’t.  You can’t even get angry.”

“Anger doesn’t help.”

He doesn’t have that tape playing in his head. Should have, shouldn’t have, . . . .

“Me, too,” the repairman is saying.  “Don’t know which way to go first, every customer yelling to be the first stop.”

“I couldn’t cope with all those decisions. How about you, Joey? Would you like to drive a truck?”

The boy’s eyes are closed again.

“So what would you like to be? An astronaut?” He’s silent.

“Hey, kid,” the man says, “that’s better than driving a truck. No traffic up there.”

A faint smile flickers on Joey’s face.

I peer up at the man. The sun is behind him now and his face is in shadow.

“Have you ever hit anyone? With your truck, I mean.”

“Once. An old lady. Her shoulder got broken. Listen, it wasn’t my fault.”

Not. My.  Fault.  I hold out my palm, weighing the words.

Joey groans. “Arm. Back.”

His left arm is bent at an odd angle. When I touch it he winces.  “Broken?” he mutters.

What does Laurie always say? Just give it to me straight, Mom.”

“If it’s broken, the doctor will put a cast on it and it will heal.”

“Cast?” He looks frightened.

“When my daughter was your age, she broke her ankle ice skating. She had to wear a cast and her friends wrote jokes on it like. . . like. . . .”  But I can’t remember.

“How about ‘break a leg’?” the man says. “Hey, kid, that’s a good one.”

That was when I read the Hobbit books to Laurie. She begged for a puppy and named him Mr. Baggins after the Hobbit. But Phillip turned out to be allergic and the dog had to be given away. Laurie cried for weeks. How come Phillip never felt guilty?

“How come it wasn’t your fault?”  I ask the man. “That woman you hit.”

“Oh, lady, give me a break. She wasn’t looking where she was going.”

He sounds like Phillip. “You’re not responsible for everything. Think of the good things you did for her.”

But I can’t remember.

“Hurts,” Joey cries.

“You better call again,” I tell the man. He hurries to his truck.

I look up at the tree, trying to see what’s on the platform.  A radio, a baseball mitt, and a strangely familiar object, swaying precariously.

“Why, Joey, is that a vacuum cleaner?”

“Yeah,” he whispers.

“I wish I’d thought of that when I had my tree house.”

“Tree. . .  house?

“Yes.”  I haven’t thought of it in years. “I used to hide up there with my favorite doll.”  That was after Daddy left.  I could cry up there, clutching my doll to keep her safe. Mama calling, “Where are you?” I could hear the weeping in her voice, the terror. But I was too young to understand.

The repairman’s pointing across the street.  “Those his folks?”

A man’s walking swiftly toward us, a woman trying to keep up with him, Joey’s friend shouting, “It wasn’t my fault,” and running  off.  

The man hurries across the street, hands jammed into the pockets of his leather jacket.

“Fine mess, Joe. What the hell were you doing?”

“Don’t,” the boy whimpers.

“Mister, your child is hurt,” I tell him.

“I told him to stay out of that tree. Think he listens?” He shakes his fist at the branches. “I’ll chop down that fuckin’ tree.” He looks at his son again. “What hurts, Joey?”

The boy is too frightened to answer.

“We called for an ambulance,” the repairman says.

“I got laid off from work. How the hell can I pay for this?”

The woman is coming toward us like a sleepwalker, wrinkled housedress, torn cardigan thrown over her shoulders.

“Joey.” Her voice is lifeless.

“Sorry, Ma.” He can barely be heard, but she just stands there, not coming closer, holding one hand in the other as if she can’t bear the weight of them.

A siren screams through the silence, an ambulance roaring into sight. It pulls up and two young medics leap out, run to Joey.

“He fell from that tree,” I tell them.

One of the medics begins feeling Joey’s arm, then his back. When he cries out, I think that’s the kidney area, remembering the charts I studied when Laurie was a child, wanting to know what to do if she got hurt.

“We’ll get the stretcher,” the medic says. “Keep the kid still.”

“I know.”

“Hey, I’m the father. What’s the story?”

“Don’t know until Emergency checks him out.”

“I don’t have insurance.”

But the men are running to the ambulance.

A car circles around us, two little girls staring wide-eyed through the window. We’re the entertainment of the day.

The medics run back with the stretcher. Carefully they slide Joey onto it. He cries out, holding my hand so tightly it hurts. I don’t want to let go either.

“You the mother?” the medic asks, prying the boy’s fingers loose.

“No. That woman is.” But the mother’s face is blank, as if she’s gone off somewhere and left her body standing here.  I know that look.

“We need information,” the medic tells the father, pulling out a notebook.

“I don’t have insurance.”

“Name and address.”

I listen as if I have to know.

“Let’s go, folks,” the medic says.

The parents head toward the ambulance.  I want to go with them but they block my way. 

“Joey,” I call out, “I’ll take care of your baseball mitt.” The doors slam in my face.

The siren wails as the ambulance speeds off, disappearing around the corner.

The repairman is holding out my scarf.

“I do good repairs,” he says. “Need anything fixed?”

Yes, I think, fix things.

“No, thanks.”

He puts his hand to his forehead in a salute, then drives off.

I stand there looking at the deserted tree. Which way . . . ?  But I know.

Grabbing hold of the rope ladder I climb up, fighting my fear of heights.  I crawl across the flimsy boards scraping my knees, wedge the handle of the vacuum cleaner between two branches. Then I clutch his baseball mitt.  “I’ll take care of it for you.” Isn’t that what I promised?

Holding on to a branch, I stand up.  How strong I feel standing here, as fearless as the girl I was all those years ago. “Where are you?” my mother kept calling, “come back.” 

“I’m not ready,” I called out. Finally I climbed down and grew up. 

I should get home, Phillip will be worried, the worry he keeps hidden from me.

Still, I stand here.  My daughter is somewhere under this same sky.  

“When you’re ready,” I tell her.

 

Author's Comment

“The Tree Child” was inspired by an incident many years ago. My husband and I were walking in our neighborhood when we saw two boys high up in a tree. Suddenly one of them fell to the ground, seriously injured. I stayed by him while my husband ran to get help. Afterward I thought there was a story somewhere in this, but I couldn’t see it clearly. It took the distance of time before I realized that the heart of the story was the woman’s feelings of failure as a mother and how she was affected by being able to care for the injured boy. I’ve lost track of how many revisions before the story breathed, but  I confess to being addicted to revising. It’s often the most gratifying part of writing.

Bios

Anne Hosansky is the author of five books and thirty stories published internationally. Her poetry awards include first place in a New York Poetry Forum contest. Currently she teaches memoir writing and maintains the blog anne-otations.me. In her “other life” she was an actor. 


Teresa Fasolino is a contemporary American illustrator widely known for her detailed, intriguing mystery novel cover illustrations. The roster of Fasolino’s clients include: the United States Postal Service, Grand Union, Penguin Putnam, United States State Department, United Nations Postal Service, Pfizer, The New York Times Magazine, and Trattoria Dell’Arte. Many major art galleries have exhibited Fasolino’s art, including the New York Academy of Sciences, the New York Historical Society, SVA’s Visual Arts Gallery, and the Norman Rockwell Museum. Her work is included in the collections of Nabisco and Grand Union, in private collections, and in the permanent collections of the Society of Illustrators, the Smithsonian, the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, and the Norman Rockwell Museum.


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