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“Even the trees get sick of the leaves…”

February 23, 2012

It was autumn. I remember that. I remember staring out the window of the car watching the herds of leaves stampeding down the sidewalk as my step-dad complained about the traffic. Mom was watching the leaves too, the russet deserters. Or maybe she was not looking at anything, just looking away from Michael.
It was almost a year since they’d met. It was a Halloween party. Mom was dressed like a cat, one of those lazy adult costumes that consist of nothing more than a few streaks of eyebrow pencil on the cheeks and a headband with felt cat ears. Michael was dressed as Michael, practical and unsmiling Michael. Mom was lost in the crowd of costumed partygoers and Michael found her alone in the throng. He talked to her at length about the state of the world and society. Mom never had much use for that kind of talk so Michael came across as quite knowledgeable. He pulled her into a corner and questioned her about her life, leaning forward with an intense gaze. She told him about her work. She told him about her lousy ex-husband. She told him about me. He wasn’t put off at all. He brought his face closer to hers. She could smell the dank coffee on his breath.
“I would like to know you better, Julie,” he said soberly.
The year had slipped by quickly and Michael worked with maximum efficiency. By the time winter break was over, he had moved in to my mother’s bedroom, guaranteeing his right to be there by placing a ring on her finger and taking us all to the courthouse one day to make her last name the same as his. He winked at me on our way to the car afterward and told me that he hoped that we could come back another day and I could have my name changed too. I didn’t say anything.
But there we were, in the car listening to Michael list his grievances against the road planning committee and the other drivers on the road, my mother looking silently away from him. I sat in the backseat looking from the back of her head to the leaves outside, from the view of her dark thick hair, to the chaotic swirl of leaves and trash along the sidewalk.
“This is ridiculous,” Michael said. “This is their idea of improving traffic flow, putting a stop light on every corner? Jesus Christ. First, they should start by getting all these lunatics off the road. I swear, if I see another Asian woman cut me off or stop short, I swear to god I’m going to lose it. Don’t get behind the wheel if you don’t know where you’re going. Number one rule of driving. It’s ridiculous. And these roads aren’t helping things either. First it’s two lanes then it’s four and then back down to two. I swear I’m going to sell the car and we’re all going to travel by bike. Make things a whole lot easier. You could work off some of those extra pounds.”
He paused for a second to glance at my mom and gauge her reaction. She turned and looked at him with a sad smile.
“You’re getting a little big in the butt,” he continued, cushioning his cruelty with hollow mirth. “We really should get the bikes out of the garage and go for a ride. It will do you some good. Can’t just sit around the house moping all day.”
“I do work, Michael,” mom muttered quietly.
“Sitting at a desk stapling papers and filing them in cabinets hardly qualifies as work. Try painting three houses in three days. See how that makes you feel. You’d be begging to go back to your cushy little office chair.”
Michael hadn’t worked in months. He spent most of his time stalking around the house fixing things that weren’t broken. He’d replaced all the handles on the cabinets. He made an enclosure to keep the outside trashcans in. “To keep the coons out,” he said. I’d never seen a raccoon except in a book or as anthropomorphic cartoon character. He fixed my windows so that I couldn’t open them, and then not satisfied with that, he attached bars on the outside of all the windows, leaving only the sliding glass door in the back accessible. He set up an archery range in the back, getting bales of hay from some unknown supplier and spending my mom’s money on an expensive bow and carbon arrows. It was less than a month before he got bored with it. I remember once during that month asking him if I could try. He looked me over with disgust and said my girl arms wouldn’t be strong enough. He said I could watch him though. I sat sadly on a plastic deck chair and watched as he fired arrows into faces he had cut out from the newspaper. After he’d become bored with the arrows, he painted the house. He chose the color and painted one day while my mom was at work. It was a shocking orange color that made house stand out like a rotten tooth on the street. He said it would drive up the value. Mom looked like she wanted to cry.
Finally, when we had escaped the traffic of the commercial district and arrived in our neighborhood, Michael parked the car in front of our electric tangerine house and we all piled silently out of the car. I ran to my room and read a book. I could hear them arguing in the living room as Michael insisted that I keep the door to my bedroom open at all times. For my own safety. I focused on my book. Probably a Nancy Drew. I’d heard them fight before. It made me shiver worse than winter. My mother’s voice cracking with tears, Michael speaking in low, measured tones, with the tension crackling throughout the house like a thunderstorm. I read the words on the page without absorbing any of the information. I read the same page again and again, my mind occupied with the heated voice of my mother and Michael’s chilly tone.
My mom appeared without warning in the doorway of my room.
“Grab your coat and your toothbrush. We’re leaving.”
The authority in her voice was foreign. I didn’t ask any questions. I grabbed my coat and retrieved my toothbrush from the bathroom, my finger still tucked between the pages of the book. Mom waited for me by the front door, surveying the living room with a distant expression.
“Julie.”
Michael poured all the emotion he was capable of into her name. She didn’t answer him. She took me by the hand and led me to the car. I was put in the passenger seat, an unusual treat. The world looked different from there. It was where my mom usually sat. I watched her driving the car and felt small beside her. I was scared when I saw the tears on her cheeks but I was more afraid of speaking. I said nothing and tried not to cry. I looked out the window and watched the trees whizzing past, their bare branches waving in desperate supplication to the sky.
We drove for hours. I don’t know how long. The landscape began to flatten and I drifted off to sleep.
It was dark when I woke up. My mother was gently nudging me.
“Sally, wake up. We’re here.”
I looked around, not recognizing anything. It was dark and I could only see the bit of yard illuminated by the porch light. I didn’t recognize it. I got out of the car to be greeted by a golden Labrador dancing excitedly around me. His wet nose touched my cheek and I wiped it away.
“Scout!” I heard a familiar voice shout. “Get over here!”
My mom led me by the hand to the house. We ascended the steps followed by the over-stimulated dog. In the golden light of the doorway, I saw my grandparents who greeted us with warm smiles and warmer hugs. I had only met them on a handful of occasions, but their smiles and hospitality melted some of the cold that had haunted me for months. Mom was polite but direct. I was shown to my room and my bed. My mom tucked me in, pulling the heavy blankets up to my chin and sitting down beside me.
“Close your eyes, sweetie,” she said. “I will see you in the morning.”
She leaned over and kissed my forehead, lingering long enough for tear to splash against my face. She walked to the door and I opened my eyes to see her pull the door closed. I shut my eyes as she had instructed and hoped for morning to arrive quickly. I could hear muffled voices in the room below me. I drifted off into the darkness.
In the morning, my grandma came in and said my name in gentle tones until I woke up. She told me that breakfast was ready. I sat at the table as she filled my and my grandfather’s plates with savory foods.
“Where’s mom?” I asked.
“She went home,” my grandpa answered.
“When’s she coming back?”
“Don’t know. Eat your eggs, honey bear.”
I ate my meal and thought about my mother. My grandparents did their best to entertain me. I played with Scout. My grandpa took me for a ride on his tractor. Grandma took me to the blackberry patch and we picked blackberries. She put them in a pie and we ate half of it after dinner. I slept again under the heavy blankets. Scout curled up beside me.
“Is mom coming today?” I asked at breakfast.
“Don’t know. Eat your eggs, goose.”
It repeated every day. I finished my book by the end of the week. They enrolled me in classes at the school. I felt out of place. I felt like our bright orange house amidst the suburban mediocrity. I was too quiet to stand out for long but I still felt like our orange house, now I was ignored. I read my books. I played with Scout. I helped my grandparents around the house.
Weeks passed. Months passed. On my birthday, I got a card from my mom and Michael. At Christmas, they sent a box of books collected from my room in the orange house. There was a card with a photo of them. They looked like “American Gothic” with Christmas sweaters on, sober, practical, unhappy people. I took the card to my room and cried over it. She looked different, like a POW at the tail end of confinement. Her eyes were empty.
I didn’t ask if my mom was coming at breakfast. Months passed. I hid my grief and recovered with the resilience that can only be found in childhood. I found things to appreciate in my new home. Scout was the best friend I had ever had and together we explored the wild landscape that surrounded my grandparent’s rural home. We forded rivers and chased rabbits. We ate berries and played fetch.
Autumn came again. It is such a melancholy season. The blue skies of summer turn gray and the trees shed their leaves giving the world a dismal naked appearance. Sadness came over me and I could not figure out why. Scout pouted by the door but I stayed in my room reading or sometimes just staring out the window. My grandma and I raided the blackberry patch but even the sweetness of a pie could not raise my spirits.
“Whatsa matter, sweet pea?” my grandpa demanded at breakfast.
“I’m sad.”
“Why’s that?”
“I don’t know. I just feel sad.”
“Something happen at school?”
“No. It’s just nothing. It’s dark all the time. It’s cold. I miss my mom.”
“Ah. Your mother. Change is hard.”
I chewed my toast and stared at my plate.
“Why do things have to change, grandpa?”
“It’s the way of things, kiddo. It’s what keeps life fresh. Everything changes, from your head to your toes and everything in between. The world changes. People change and countries change and life changes. Even the trees get sick of the leaves sometimes. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“But why?”
“Things have to change in order to grow. Life can’t always be a caterpillar, at some point it has to become a butterfly. You know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
I didn’t. I smiled and finished my toast. Grandpa seemed satisfied and slurped his coffee with satisfaction. I went to school. I did my best to pretend to be happy and by the end of the week, I had nearly convinced even myself. I walked the dog. I smiled. I read. Autumn turned to winter and spring arrived bringing color and verve. Summer came and went in a blink. The cycle continued year after year. I grew several inches and my grandparents grew grayer.
Adolescence in a rural community is like growing up in America’s past. There is not so much rebellion to latch on to as there is in the cities. And even though I found myself brimming with unexplained anger as my body changed and attitudes toward me changed, my grandparents were exceedingly patient. To my teenage self, they were annoyingly patient. When I wanted to spread my anger to them, to transmit it like disease, they remained kind. The autumn when I refused to join my grandma in the blackberry patch, she brought a slice and a glass of milk to my room.
“I don’t want any,” I told her as she crossed through the doorway.
She set the plate and glass on my desk.
“I’ll just leave it here.”
“I don’t want any, grandma,” I insisted. “Just leave me alone.”
“Salomé,” she said. Her voice was uncharacteristically serious. “There is a lot to be angry about in the world. I won’t deny that. There’s a lot of bad things in the world. And it’s okay to get angry. It’s good to get angry when bad things happen. But you can’t let bad rob you of your good. And there’s so much good in the world. A hundred things a day happen that we can be thankful for, but it’s hard to remember when you only remember the one bad thing. So, please, for me, enjoy this good thing and forget the bad for a while.”
I ate the pie and tried not to cry. I only had a vague notion of what she was saying; I still could not figure out the bad in my life. The anger seemed to materialize from nowhere and dominate my brain and my body. I felt ashamed that she could see that. I finished the pie and took Scout into the trees. We wandered till night fell. I complained and he loved me. I told him my darkest thoughts and he smiled like a friend.
In the morning I asked my grandpa.
“Why did my mother leave me here?”
“That’s pretty formal.”
“What do you mean?”
“ ‘My mother’? You used to just call her mom.”
“I’m older now, grandpa.”
“I suppose you are.”
“So why’d she do it?”
“Why’d she do what, honey bear?”
“Why’d my mom leave me?”
He drew a great breath into his ursine body and stared into the black void in his coffee cup.
“I reckon that she didn’t want you to have to live with her mistakes.”
It took a second. It was like that second after the gun is fired and the bullet is speeding toward you. It hit me and I collapsed in angry tears. I choked on my sobs, trying to hold them back while desperate to let them out.
“I just miss her so much. I don’t know why she had to leave.”
You might think a man like my grandpa, a massive, weathered man with calloused hands might freeze with emotional turgidity at the sight of a teenage girl choking on her tears. He scooted his chair next to mine and pulled me into a warm bear hug, letting me soak his shirt in tears, spit and snot.
“I just miss her.”
“We all do,” he said quietly. “It’s okay. We all do.”
I don’t know how long I cried. It felt like forever. My throat hurt, but I felt clean. I felt renewed. I looked at my grandpa and hugged him as hard as I could. I could see his eyes were watery and red too. He smiled, a sad smirk.
“Think I must’ve got something in my eye,” he said.
I smiled. I really smiled. The levy had burst and I smiled. I laughed and cried and hugged him again.
“I love you, grandpa.”
“I love you too, sugar pop.”
It was autumn. It was when things change, when the leaves get sick of the trees and break free, when the old dies to make way for the new. Autumn. The world is laid bare, in order to be clothed again in the finest raiments of nature.

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