Pine

Andrew Tao, Author

Andrew Tao is a senior who is most interested in magical realism. He enjoys reading short stories and novels by authors ranging from O. Henry to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Pine

There was the pine tree across the lawn. It still stood a stone’s throw away from the gray satellite dish they used to decorate with pink plastic flamingos every year for mama’s birthday. Like a splash of water from a fallen stone, a crown of dandelion flowers sprouted from the structure’s base, the petals now fraying into balls of white cotton. He could see them blowing the bits of snow across the grass, him pulling grass blades together in a cross and fighting to see which would break first, her winding and unwinding the sheaths around her fingers and combing the earth for four-leafed clovers. They had both called her mama — even though she was really only Augusta’s biological mother, Claude would stay at the house so often the mailman would greet him by name and ask him how his sister Augusta was when he came down the drive Sunday mornings. The sky still held that same brilliant blue. With his eyes furiously scanning the body of the pine, Claude could still see the lines etched into the graying bark, twisting into hearts and stars and rings and birds. Looking at the attic window peeking out of the roof of the house, he remembered watching for her father with her, listening to the growling of the engine grow louder and then fade and then cut out each night. He remembered the look on her face when, one morning, the money was gone and the engine never came.

They fell in love the spring the birds came early. Claude had never been comfortable with her father around the house, but with him gone, he would spend weeks on end sleeping in the low-ceilinged attic above her bedroom. Mama wouldn’t let them sleep in the same room. But at night, with the headlights of passing cars illuminating shifting vines against their curtains, they would slip notes between the cracks of the floorboards and whisper into the damp dust about the books they would read, the toys they would make, the places they would go in the days to come. Some nights Augusta would sneak into the attic and they would listen to the record player and cry over the ending of all things real and laugh over her complaining about the sweaty boys whose pits smelled like vinegar when they tried to drape their soggy arms around her. Then they would slide the curtains open and distinguish the flickering shadows and stare at the infinity of stars in their little square of space. In the fall they would go apple picking while the air was still ripe with promises.

It was the winter when she began seeing pink and blue. He held her in his arms and asked her what to do, then told her what to do, then screamed at her what to do. She took him to the buried cornfield, an endless sheet of paper under the multitude of stars, and asked him if they would stay burning forever. He took her hands in his and dug one knee into the ground and reached into his pocket and closed his eyes, but when he opened them again he was running far, far away. His mother had long ago stopped asking him to come home and with his stolen driver’s license in hand, he could feel the touch of freedom on his lips every day as he woke up. The night he left, he had watched her from the doorway into the early hours of the morning. He couldn’t move in space, his eyes were frozen on her hair, and he kept asking himself, had her arms always lay on top of her stomach like that? Had her lips always fluttered as she exhaled like that? He was buying each moment, promising an infinity in return, to stay just one more moment and watch her chest rise and fall and rise and fall in soft progression.

He was gone as soon as he opened the car door. He just had to plant his soles on the pedal and empty his mind as the familiar convenience stores and plazas and lamp posts drifted into the background and were replaced by solid walls of white forest on either side. The car was deathly cold in the interior, the type of cold that set one’s fingertips on fire and took daggers to their nose. Outside, Claude watched as the final birds of the year passed under the sun and sounded their barbarous yawps over the rooftops of the world.

He met Mama again, six years later, down in Florida in one of the old retirement homes with the large above-ground swimming pools. He was draining it to clean the bottom of the tub of grayed hairballs and yellowed retainers that reeked of chlorine and disinfectants. She found him with her wedding ring caught in the pool rake; he was sifting through the filth and dregs of the inch or so residue of remaining water. She didn’t seem mad or disappointed when she saw him. Her face betrayed only a slight weariness as she showed Claude pictures of his son waving in a little tube swimming pool. The photograph smelled like the pine soap they would make after school together. She said she had her mother’s laugh and, after joining the middle school track team and beating all the 7th graders, her father’s propensity for running.

Claude began to linger in the playgrounds around the city, watching the cats fight around the swing sets and relishing the abuse the one-eyed whale by the geodesic climber would hurl at him from close by. Coward. Deadbeat. Bum. Finally, he had lain his mattress in the trunk of his car, tossed the pile of magazines he had accumulated into a dumpster, and rested his foot back on the pedal, watching the world run by in reverse of what it had done for him six years before.

The house looked exactly like he had remembered it. For a moment the years stripped away and he felt the urge to sling off the straps of a backpack from his shoulders and break open the car door and fly up the steps to the house like a child. He put his hand on the door handle, but when he pulled, he couldn’t break it open. He had tried to relieve some of the tension while in his motel room, lying alone on the mattress with one last magazine in hand, but nothing had come out. And as the moments ticked by, he felt he was frozen in time as well, a passive observer of the furious cars that raced by his window, leaving in their wakes torrents of leaves which swirled in tornados that killed themselves off just as soon as they were born. He felt caged and trapped and his face was molded shut and uncomfortably warm as if it had been covered with clay and thrown into a kiln and would crack if he tried to move it or make any sort of expression.

After leaving the motel room, he had gone to the cornfield with a scythe and a flashlight. The field had lain fallow for the past several years as the family who owned it had sold off their tractors in order to go into the bead selling business. Claude had scoured the field for a day and a night, searching through the matted stalks for the spot they had last spoken and what he had left behind.

Now that he was outside her house, he lifted the ring to the light and felt the weight of the metal in his palm. He hated the boy who had tossed it into the dirt that night, who had trampled through frosted spears just to get away from the people who loved him so much it had terrified every cell in his skinny body. The ring glinted between his fingers, and as he lifted it to his eye he noticed, through the opening of the annulus, a little toy lying in the grass. It was a stuffed animal, a wind-up baby bird that somehow looked new and worn at the same time. Beside the steps, it stood as if it was guarding the passage to the house with its extended wings. The wind picked up and Claude felt the inexplicable urge to reach out before it flew away.

Clutching the ring in his sweaty palm, Claude pushed open the door and stepped onto the grass. He walked to the bird and knelt to pick it up. There was a familiar quality to the stitches in its sides that lent an almost pleased expression to its button eyes. He pressed it to his lips and breathed in the smell of pine soap. And he walked the path back up to the house, ring in one hand, bird in the other, and smelling of pine all over.