The Maple Tree
Claudia was a beautiful sixty-year-old, even in her dirt-dusted gardening gear. Her cloud of curls bloomed from her brown visor, and when she tilted her head so her moon face was visible, there was no doubt she had not gone gray, but platinum. Tanned arms rippled as her gloves, cruddy with history, toiled, shifting soil and transplanting vibrant creations.
Mark watched his wife from their porch, crumpled under the thick weight of cigarette smoke. He’d cough and gurgle, then sigh complacently when he finally got his inner fluids where he wanted them. Mark would sound every few minutes throughout the day “like a jetlagged rooster,” Claudia would prod. They’d been married forty-three years, and Claudia didn’t recognize Mark without a smoke hanging from his lip.
Their granddaughter, Madison, was a peach, and was reminded of this irrefutable fact by her doting grandparents whenever she visited. So when the telephone sprang to life from the kitchen, Claudia watched her husband swing to his feet, balance his lit cigarette off the side of the table, buck into the house, and, after a few salutatory coughs into the receiver, exclaim, “Hiya Peach.”
Claudia smiled in the shade of their maple tree, its crimson fur waving. Peach is the apple of that man’s eye.
“I know. I know, baby,” Mark recited. The routine has gone on long enough that Claudia knew exactly where they were in their conversation. Peach heard the cringeworthy greeting of coughs and immediately lambasted her grandfather for smoking. Claudia knew she loved her grandfather very much—even favored him over her. She came to terms with this heart-wrenching fact years ago. The man had a way with his granddaughter.
Claudia’s garden came to her aid during those dark times, when the wound was fresh and intolerable. No amount of mental gymnastics would let her circumvent that grotesque mass. (“I don’t want you to take me. I want Grandpa to take me!”) She was barely able to turn away from her stomping granddaughter to hide her shocked expression—the face of a drowned victim. Mark ushered Peach playfully, yet urgently, out the door, knowledgeable of what just occurred. Claudia sat in the dim kitchen until she regained her breath. Then she cried into an oven mitt. When she found resentment growing toward her Peach (“Good, let him take you, you little snot nose!”), she caught herself and took it out on the soil. She scraped and dug; she dumped dirt onto the hurt so that something good, rather than evil, would grow.
Claudia remembered her pain, her hatred, and her jealousy, but for her life she couldn’t remember where it was that Peach wanted to go—where they had gone. That story rotted on the vine, was lost in her own shadow, and Claudia vowed never to let that happen again.
“What do you mean, Madison?”
Madison, Claudia thought, something’s wrong. Peach lived in a perfect land atop pillars of flawless grandparent-love; its borders guarded by their winged wisdom. Madison, however, existed in reality, and reality could be cruddy.
Some murmurs followed. Claudia heard Mark thumping back. She put down her spade and waited patiently on her knees for what was to blossom. Mark shoved open the screen door and let it seizure against the frame. He picked up his smoke, flicked off two inches of ash and finished the meager remainder in one long drag. As Mark spoke, smoke escaped like Madison set a fire inside of him: “Peach won’t visit unless I quit smoking.”
Claudia’s cheeks were bulbs as she laughed to herself. Her granddaughter was getting older, was getting wiser. She knew what smoking meant to her grandpa, but she also knew what she meant to her grandpa. Peach probably wasn’t aware of the term, nor was it likely that she could pronounce it, but she had put forth an ultimatum, whether she realized it or not.
Mark was stunned stiff on the porch, the way a man is when they come to a crossroads and know their next step means everything.
The old maple tree waved at the old couple, greeting its contemporaries with hushed rustles during their latest predicament—their latest of many. Claudia straightened herself out and started to brush the dirt from her knees: “Well, what are you going to do, Mark?”
Mark was lighting another cigarette when he said, “Guess I’m quitting.”
. . .
Claudia knew he would. She could plead until the sun split in two, show him all the gory commercials on television of smokers getting open-heart surgery—he’d always have his line: “Gotta die of something.”
“But not in the next five years,” she’d fruitlessly retort, which was countered with a grumble or a shrug. She didn’t have a winning hand against her husband when it came to smoking. Peach, however, was dealt aces when she was given her mother’s round eyes and her father’s full cheeks—she had a way with her grandpa.
Mark and Claudia watched the setting sun spill its amber into the sky from their porch. An empty bottle of Limoncello was on the table between them; its remnants in their glasses, dewy with condensation. The glasses scattered wet rings all over the table, which began to connect and form a big puddle. Amidst this puddle was Mark’s empty cigarette pack. He was smoking one and had his last one in his shirt pocket, close to his heart.
The red maple rippled in the twilight. “I’m scared, Claudia.” She rolled her heavy head to look at her baby.
“I know,” she said, fumbling for his hand, “we’ll think of something.”
. . .
Sunday morning arrived with a couple of terrible hangovers and a miserable sonofabitch. Mark wouldn’t get out of bed, and Claudia couldn’t bear to share it with him for another moment. She watched CBS Sunday Morning in the living room, gulping water while her coffee got cold.
A forgettable segment about a house decorated exclusively in seashells passed before her lifeless eyes. During a commercial she microwaved her coffee and returned to a piece on transplanting tree branches. Perhaps it was due to her green thumb, but Claudia felt it both fascinating and rather simple to do. Apparently, one could take a limb from one tree—say an apple tree—make a little notch in another tree—say an oak tree—in which you could transplant the branch, and before you knew it that acorn-bearing oak would also be growing apples. It’s almost like witchcraft, Claudia thought behind her coffee, billowing steam like a cauldron.
A phantom bellowed from afar, “Replace the goddamn toilet paper, will ya!” She knew damn well there was a new one behind the toilet on the tank, but no need to prod the beast. She sipped as Mark padded the floor above.
. . .
For the next three days all Mark did was sleep and watch television. It got so that Claudia would gag when she went to bed.
“Why don’t you take a shower, baby?”
“What’s the use?”
She ignored his dramatics and commandeered the remote.
The next week Mark occupied the couch. He used up all his slumber at the beginning of his tobacco sobriety, and now he was amidst the insomnia phase. Claudia cringed when she pictured her sofa cushions yellowed with his sweat. From her roomy bed she listened to various night show hosts give way to repetitive and over-produced infomercials in the living room. The morning would yield nastiness from the bloodshot jackal when she offered it breakfast:
“Does it look like I want to eat?” he’d manage to bark between coughing bouts.
“You’re a real bastard,” she’d say, striding away from his gray countenance into the kitchen.
And then she’d stride out front to tend to her garden. Once again, her tomatoes and basil and tulips came to her aid, swayed her into the right direction.
As Claudia cooled off under the shade of the giant maple, remedied by the medicinal quietness of her tiny creations, she was reminded of a certain segment she saw on TV and a certain gnarled branch that needed transplanting.
. . .
Claudia parked in front of the house and bounded into the living room. This was day thirteen, and Mark was busy gnashing his teeth on the couch, his forehead sprinkled with sweat. “What?” he demanded, angry at life, yet scared of his wife and her hasty appearance.
Claudia’s curls bounced and her arms flexed as she peeled her rotting husband from the couch—leaving a damp divot along the cushions—and corralled him towards the shower. Mark didn’t give much of a fight. He hopelessly allowed himself to be swept by his lovely wife’s momentum. He didn’t say much of anything, except for an objection here or there when she tugged off his socks or pelted a washcloth at his chest, but it was just something to say—he was too worn to have self-respect.
. . .
“You’ll feel much better. You just need something to do.” Being a bastard isn’t enough to fill up your hours; it leaves you wanting.
Mark did feel better—fresher. He licked his brushed teeth and it gave him pleasure to feel their glossiness. I did that, he thought. It was small, but he did it.
“You know, Claudia, I do feel better.” Mark expected praise, but instead he received more orders.
“Follow me.” She led his dejected self out to her car and opened the trunk. “Pick up that branch for me, it’s too heavy.”
“Jesus, Claudia, where did you get this from?”
“Don’t worry about it, just use your man muscles and put it next to the maple tree.” Again, her cheeks bloomed into bulbs, “I told you we’d think of something.”
. . .
Mark started to sleep better the following days. Claudia put him to work. Once they got the branch affixed to their maple, Claudia turned their sights onto their front yard. Instead of watching her toil from the porch, Claudia had Mark kneeling right beside her in the garden with a spade in his bare hands: she didn’t have gardening gloves that fit those paws.
His back and legs were sore in all sorts of strange places; these aching muscles carried him to bed when the day was at an end. The empty spaces of his day, which he typically filled with clouds of cigarette smoke, were instead filled with sweat and soil and dreams of peaches—for the branch that absconded from Perry Meadow was dismembered from a peach tree. The bare limb now belonged to their ancient maple tree, whose scarlet presently cracked a gap-toothed smile.
“They’re just the pits, Claudia,” observed Mark some weeks later. He hung an arm over her warm shoulders.
She hooked his damp torso. “That’s how it begins.”
. . .
Three months rolled past—not a single cigarette. The big branch proved strong when those hard pits developed into rotund peaches. Claudia and Mark observed the marked growth from the porch every sunset while digesting their dinner.
Peach had been with them the entire summer, and soon Peach—true to her word—would finally arrive and stay with her grandparents for two weeks. Claudia and Mark considered having a few Limoncellos the night prior to celebrate. But, thinking better of its corresponding hangover, instead toasted their accomplishments and impending reward with fresh peaches—as well as an Entenmann’s cake; can’t have a celebration without an Entenmann’s.
Peach was dropped off the next morning at seven with a few beeps of the horn and a wave from their son-in-law. Peach embraced her grandma, dangled adoringly from her grandpa, quenched them both.
“You got fat, Grandpa.” That Peach was a peach. They doubled over at her scathing honesty. “You’re so pretty, Grandma. And you’re tan, too. Tanner than me.” Peach held her arm next to her grandma’s to compare.
“That’s from working in the garden.”
“It’s too hot to work out here,” Peach said, strolling around the yard and inspecting the various plant life.
“There’s patches of shade,” said Mark. He waltzed over and hefted Peach into his arms with a groan. Peach had gotten so heavy Mark was certain she had grown another limb.
“Are those peaches?” Peach gasped incredulously from the vantage point of her grandpa’s chest, her legs straddling his jutting belly.
“Peaches for our Peach,” Claudia crooned.