The Man Who Used Trees
A story by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Charley Harvey was sitting under an old oak tree, just sitting, doing nothing. He was,
if anything, waiting for the next thing to happen. He had a major stake in what that
thing would be, and not even the slightest idea of what he might do to affect the
outcome, one way or the other.
The tree wasn’t working for Charley the way trees used to work, before this. Charley
used trees the way people use tobacco or pot — to draw away accumulated poisons,
to soothe. Charley, it seemed, had used his last tree. Now whatever lay ahead didn’t
matter, the most of it was over.
Charley found out about trees and himself when he was ten, a dull-seeming boy with
little capacity for fun or communication. His parents, both teachers, worked hard all
day, drank even harder at night, and fell asleep in their easy chairs with their clothes
on most nights. Charley didn’t think he had been abused. If you’re going to abuse a
boy, first you have to notice him.
It happened one late afternoon when Charley came home from raking a neighbor’s
leaves, hungry. He didn’t expect to find a meal set out for him. His parents, if they
were home yet, would be “unwinding,” as they put it, before thinking about dinner.
Sometimes that’s all they did about dinner — think about it. Sometimes they actually
ate together, but that was usually more by chance than by intention.
Charley thought he’d make a couple of salami sandwiches. The milk would probably
be sour — his parents didn’t put milk in their coffee, so they didn’t know when it
turned bad. When it went, Charley would pour it down the sink and one parent or the
other would eventually notice it was gone and buy another bottle. If there was no
milk, Charley would open a can of tomato juice. One thing he could count on finding
in the house was tomato juice. His parents drank it a lot, with vodka in it.
This time in the refrigerator famished Charley found nothing to eat. No salami, but
there was mustard. No baloney, no corned beef, no American cheese, no goddamn
tuna fish. Mustard and mayonnaise and ketchup and freaking Worcestershire sauce
and not a goddamn fucking thing to put them on. With a surge of energy Charley
slammed the refrigerator door so it rattled the cans and bottles stacked on top. He
blew out of the kitchen door almost before he opened it, stalked across the backyard
lawn, and flopped under the oak tree at the corner of the yard, breathing hard.
Charley was frightened by the way he was feeling. He feared he might explode from
all the feeling he was doing. He couldn’t hold still, lying on his back was impossible,
as though the whole front of his body needed to be held in against the blast. He sat
up, knees bent to his chest, and leaned back against the cool tree trunk, his breathing
Ten years later he would try to explain to Arielle what that tree did to him. “It poured
itself into me,” he would say. “It fed me. I wasn’t hungry any more, I wasn’t aching,
after a while I didn’t hate my parents for being drunks. That tree took all the hurting
anger out of me and put something calmer in its place.” Arielle said she understood,
but she didn’t, she never got it.
Charley and Arielle got married and started making babies. Making them was easy
and fun, paying for them was neither. Their house, at the end of a dirt road in the
country, was rented from an old woman in the village who cared more that they took
good care of the place than that they paid the going rate for rent in the area. Charlie
had two jobs and Arielle started taking in other people’s kids for day care. It was a
good place to have kids. A grassy fenced-in yard surrounded by trees.
Charley didn’t like the house much. It took a lot of fixing to keep it the way the owner
wanted it, and she came by unannounced whenever it came into her mind to do so.
But they’d have to pay half again as much rent if they moved, and Charley thought
the trees were just fine. They did for him what the oak at his parents’ place had done.
When he and Arielle got to fighting, he’d walk out the kitchen door before things got
out of hand and go sit up against one of the trees. So far the fighting was only just
words, her words more than his. When he felt his muscles tighten and his breath
speed up and his fingers curl in toward his palms, he’d go out the back door and pick
The school bus didn’t come out as far as where Charley and Arielle and their kids
lived, so when the oldest was ready to start school they moved into the village.
Charley knew they were going to be house poor for years, but Arielle’s logic was
irrefutable: it was a rent-to-buy deal and part of the rent, including all of the increase,
went toward their down payment on the house. If they didn’t move into town they’d
need another car, and cars lose their value the minute you drive off the lot. A house
adds some value each year. There was only one tree and it stood by the side of the
road on land the state owned, but if he sat with his back to the road Charley could
get its comfort. It didn’t matter that the tree wasn’t his — or his landlord’s.
The first thing the state did when they started to widen the road was cut down the
tree. Charley, dressing for work, saw the men jump off the truck and put on hard hats.
One of them grabbed a chain saw while the other set out orange cones and “Men
Working” signs. Barely half dressed, Charley tried to stop the men. They had their job
to do, though. The sound of the saw ripped through Charley’s chest, then his head.
Charley put the car in position, its nose pointing straight at the tree workers. He
started the engine and, kneeling outside, released the emergency brake, wedged the
gas pedal down with a piece of two-by-four, and rolled out of the way.
Now Charley Harvey is sitting under an old oak tree down the street from his house,
just sitting, doing nothing. He is, if anything, waiting for the next thing to happen. He
has a major stake in what that thing will be, and not even the slightest idea of what
he might do to affect the outcome, one way or the other.
"The Man Who Used Trees" appeared in Volume 8 of the Berkshire Review, June, 2000. Copyright © 1999 Miryam Ehrlich Williamson. All rights reserved.
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