Short Fiction – The Oak Tree

May 8th, 2008

I like splitting wood, I always have. Since the day I turned thirteen I’d made a habit of putting in some time with the wedge, hammer and axe- first because my old man told me to, later because it just produced a kind of peace inside me. “Zen”, some people would call it. It felt good exerting all the energy of hard work, turning it to fuel for the fire on cold winter nights. There was this old oak tree, must have been a hundred years old when I was a teen, and we always did the work under its branches, enjoying the shade it provided while we sweated away.

We’d lived in a cabin at that time, when I was a kid on the verge of becoming a young man, and I’d chafed at everything I’d been denied by my father’s insistence on such a Spartan life. At one point I even hated him, but I got over it. Maturity has a way of doing that, making you look back and see all that conflict and resentment in a new light. Growing pains, nothing more. And through the last five years before that stupid accident out on the Old Fisherville Road, my father’s task to me had always seemed like a break rather than a chore. I know now as I’m standing on the brink of a half-century of life that it was more than a chore. It was a way of understanding the value of an honest effort. It taught me to comprehend the way hard work and survival could go hand in hand. It showed me the inner peace that could be mine by simply taking on a task and seeing it done.

I miss my father. I remember the day he died- I was out there under that old oak stacking the freshly split pieces when sheriff Lavery trundled up the path in his old Jeep to deliver the news, first to me, then to mom. I know dad would have been heart-broken to see her tears that day. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter what you want or what you meant. Sometimes life is sad, even ugly, but you have to go through it. Even in death, my old man had something to teach me.

I’d kept the cabin after he died even though mom wanted to get rid of it. She’d moved to Burlington and never looked back- dad had been a real old New England Yankee and his savings had been enough for her to live in comfort to the end of her days. She took a job at the library and lived out her life without ever returning to the cabin on the mountainside. I understood it. I knew she didn’t hate it there; she just couldn’t love it any longer without dad.

I did what men do- finished college, got a job, married a woman who always knew when my heart was heavy and could lighten it just by being there. We lived in the city, but the cabin was a place we retreated to whenever we could; first just us, then us and our two children. I still would head out to the oak tree and split wood whenever we were up there, stocking up enough firewood so we could stay well in to December. The oak sprouted a tire swing and a tree house as the years passed, like it wanted to provide everything to this generation, and it would have, had there been time.

I was standing there again under that tree, axe in hand and the fruits of my labor stacked in piles around me when I heard what I thought was my family returning from an outing to the lake. Only instead it was another jeep, a young deputy sheriff wearing a solemn face and bearing news of the end of all I loved and cared for in this world. I buried my family and then just weeks later did the same for my mother. I know it was the shock and sadness of my loss that robbed her of her final years and that made it all just that much more bitter.

I withdrew from the world, spending all my time at the cabin making it ready for a long Vermont winter. I was determined to stay there, maybe never to leave and I realize now that there was a lot of death wish about that decision, but at the time it was just something I was focused on. It drove out all other consideration, letting me just make the daily trip out to the oak tree to begin splitting the logs delivered that morning. I bought a ridiculously large four-wheel drive so I could make it up and down the mountain when the weather turned, but I stocked up on food and other necessities, remembering the way my father would cram stuff in to every square inch of free space, just so those trips would be few and far between.

That winter was hard, let me tell you. Once the snow set in and I fully understood that this was where I’d be for most of five months I really started to come unglued, and there was no real outlet for it. I started writing, having kept my dad’s old Underwood and being all stocked up on paper. I’d never been much of a writer before, never seemed to have a desire to do it, or the time. Now all I had was time.

I tried to write about my pain, but that just made things worse, so instead I wrote about what might have been. It seemed to fill the void in me, giving my family the life they were robbed of, even if it was only on paper, stories nobody would ever read. I let my imagination run wild, creating adventures, dramas, and yes, even tragedies. It grew into something enormous, thousands of pages retelling lives that never had a chance to be lived.

It was cathartic, yes, but it was also painful to burn out my grief like that. Nonetheless when the snows finally gave way and the road down the mountain became passable again I was strangely eager to rejoin the world. I went into town and called friends to let them know things were finally okay and we made plans to get together- I was going to leave the cabin.

It’s strange how all these things work out. My friends arrived to help me move out and one of them saw my boxes of manuscript. He asked if I wanted to submit pieces for a literary journal his magazine was setting up, and from there the rest is history. A few short stories became three novels, became a hit television series. I made a decent sum of money, enough so I could do whatever I wanted, but mostly I worked as a story and script consultant for the show.

That’s how I met Angela. She was twenty years younger than me, just seventeen when we met, and she played the part that would have been my daughter, though I never let it be fully known. She was startlingly pretty, vivacious, smart… in short I think I fell in love with her the very first day we met. I never told her, of course. I was still wrapped in a cocoon of pain and that made me not terribly entertaining to be around. Despite all my success I really felt like damaged goods, almost like I was diseased- I wouldn’t inflict myself on a woman, particularly not one I cared for. I still had this broken thing inside me and I’d decided I couldn’t ever really let it go.

I never explored that feeling, never let her know how I felt, but it did come out in the show. My writing for her took on an edge that was honed to perfection, and when the show wound down after a few years they spun off her character in to a new series that was even more popular than the original. She was on fire by then, her own personality driving the twists and turns in the story arc. She would mention an idea she had and a few weeks later it would show up in the script and I’d take a ridiculous amount of pleasure in seeing her latch on to it and run. Her talent just blew me away, and I wasn’t the only one. She started getting offers for really big stuff, silver screen parts, and with that dangling in front of her the desire to put the television career to rest was unavoidable.

In a way I was relieved. Hollywood is a fun place to dip in to from time to time, but I always felt like I just didn’t belong, and I knew others there felt the same way. They looked on me as something they had to put up with because the writing was too important to give up, but I had no real friends there other than a couple of the assistant directors, and Angela, of course. When they announced the final season, my only regret was that I would probably never see her again, and even that was a bit of a relief.

It was in writing the end to the series that everything went so terribly wrong. Angela thought she should die, or more appropriately that her character should die. It made sense, really. As a matter of fact it was pure genius given the direction the story was taking. The only problem was I just couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t explain why. It felt foolish to say that I couldn’t kill my daughter. That I’d seen her die once already and I couldn’t make myself write it. All sorts of bad blood flowed from that and at one point Angela literally begged me to write it, or to at least explain why I wouldn’t. She was upset when I had nothing to say, but not in an angry or hateful way. She said it was like I didn’t trust her all of a sudden, after working together for eight years. It was betrayal and it was worse because I couldn’t explain it without admitting things I never wanted her to know.

I finally confided in someone, Rick Willis. He was a young guy, an assistant director who also wrote on the side, and we’d become friendly. We went out one night and the beer started flowing, and then it all came out, and I mean all of it. He understood, and he promised to keep my confidence, and after that night I started to pull myself out of the plot and script development. There were others who could do it, and do a passable job of it.

I watched the final episode of the series at the cabin in Vermont, now outfitted with satellite TV and all the comforts. Angela had asked me to come to the crew party, but I’d declined. I was already in too much pain to bear seeing her again, but it was even worse to hear the disappointment in her voice and I still couldn’t explain to her why it had to be this way. I couldn’t even explain it to myself.

I’d gotten soft doing all that script work on the west coast. When I decided to work off some of my unhappiness I naturally went out to the old oak tree, but I wasn’t nearly in the shape I’d been in and had to stop after only an hour. I didn’t care; it still felt good to do it. It became a goal- get back to where I could spend a day doing the one thing that had always been so peaceful for me. It was spring when I started and by the time October rolled around I was in the groove again. There’s a rhythm to the work and you just have to find it and hold to it. The axe goes up and you slide your left hand down the handle as you drive it downward in a smooth stroke- once you get that rhythm you can just go for hours. The bigger pieces are different- you need the wedge and the sledge. Harder work, but it engages your mind more.

A year went by, then two. I was still writing, but only short stories. I’d turned down a few offers to do script work because I didn’t want to get mixed up in that business again. It had been fun, but I knew that nothing again would match the magic of those eight years with Angela. Why ruin it by trying to do it again? Instead I enjoyed the peace and solitude of the cabin, glad to have all the ruckus and fuss of the previous years behind me. I was even able to enjoy watching Angela’s latest work without feeling the tug at my heart. Well, not feel it too much.

I was out splitting wood the morning Rick called me. It was so unexpected I nearly had to ask if it were a joke, but no, it was him calling from New Zealand of all places. He asked me if I’d heard from Angela in the last day or two and I told him I hadn’t and that I really didn’t expect to.

“I need to tell you something,” he said, and his voice told me that I wasn’t likely to enjoy hearing it. “We’ve been working on preproduction for the latest project, and things haven’t been going well.”

“Not going well? How?”

“The script. The script sucks. The story is great, Angela’s part is primo, but the script is just a dog and nobody’s been able to straighten it out.”

“Rick, I don’t do scripts anymore.”

“Yeah, I know that, but… see we were out bopping around Auckland, Angela and me and one of the producers, kinda club hopping, but the problems we were having kept coming up. Out of the blue Angela says she wished there was some way she could have you take a look at it.”

“And?”

“And… I said something I shouldn’t have. I was really drunk, kind of like that night when you and I were talking…”

“Rick, what did you say?” Suddenly I was trembling. It was stupid to get this worked up over it, but I couldn’t see anything good coming…

“I said I knew why you wouldn’t do it. I knew I’d screwed up and I tried to back track, but she was on me like white on rice and like I said I was really in the bag…”

“Rick! What did you tell her?

“Man, I’m so sorry… I, uh, I told her everything.”

I just stood there holding the phone to my ear. I wasn’t angry, or even a little upset, just resigned.

“She, uh, didn’t seem to take it bad. I mean she got all quiet, but otherwise…”

“So you think she’s going to call me?”

“Actually? No. She left New Zealand that next morning. Two days ago. Flight to Sydney, then Los Angeles. I thought you should know.”

I sighed, and then thanked him for letting me know. He apologized again, but I told him not to worry about it. In my own view it was unfair of me to expect him to keep my secrets anyhow, it felt almost childish when I thought of it. So I let him off the hook, which seemed to mean a lot to him.

Two days. Maybe she’d thought better of it? Angela was a smart young woman- she had to know that it would be difficult for me to deal with her knowing that she was aware of my feelings towards her. I could imagine her trying to be all rational about it. Hey, we’re all adults here. This doesn’t have to be a problem does it? I mean, I’m flattered, of course, but why let it get in the way of a simple business arrangement?

Angela had her share of men wanting her attention, a natural consequence of her beauty and her fame, so she’d think there was no reason for this to be any different. She was used to dealing with people who put on fronts all the time; she’d think I could do it, too. But maybe she realized this was different. Maybe she realized I wasn’t like the men she was used to dealing with. Sure, everyone has their issues, their crises and their emotional baggage, but we moved in different worlds…

It didn’t matter. Either she would come, or she wouldn’t. Regardless, I was not going work on her script. I couldn’t bear to be that close to her again.

A few days passed and I began to relax. If she were coming to Vermont she’d have arrived by now. She was smart, and I knew she cared about me in her own way. She wasn’t the type of person to simply ignore other people’s feelings. I started to let myself stop worrying about it, and as a couple more days went by my life returned to normal. I took a trip in to town and got supplies, arranged another wood delivery, and pretty much forced myself back in to the normal rhythm I enjoyed.

It was when I went back to the woodpile under the oak tree that I started thinking about everything that had happened in my life, both the good and the bad. I had this urge to somehow finally set it all down and leave it behind. Not forget it, because I knew I could never forget, but I was so tired of carrying it around all the time. Yeah, there had been a lot of bad, but I always thought I’d dealt with it. All this turmoil over something so simple, it had to be telling me something, didn’t it?

I stood there, may hands resting on the axe handle, and for the first time I began to wonder if it wasn’t time to let this place go. I looked at the oak tree, that tattered rope hanging from it, the dilapidated tree house lodged up in its branches- I’d taken an awful lot of bad news standing right where I was. Maybe I ought to cut it down, I thought, maybe that would be enough. It troubled me to think that way because I knew it wasn’t the rational me doing the thinking. It was simply escapist, that somehow I could just run away and leave all the badness behind me.

I decided I wouldn’t decide today. It was something to take seriously, but not today. I hefted the axe and set about splitting logs, stripping off my shirt as the morning grew hot. It was single-minded work, letting me shut off my brain so I didn’t have to think about things beyond placing the log and striking my mark. It was a happy place for me to be, working in the warm summer air, doing the one thing that always brought me peace.

“They sell that stuff already split.”

It took a second for the voice to penetrate my cocoon and I’d already placed another log on the block by the time it all registered. I hefted the axe and brought it down hard, sending the two pieces sailing of to the sides and burying the blade in the block.

“That’s not the point,” I sighed. I stood there, my back to her, trying to decide how I felt, how I ought to feel, but nothing really came to me except butterflies in my stomach. It stretched into an awkward silence and finally I just turned to face her.

God, she was beautiful. She was in jeans and t-shirt, looking like she could have been any woman taking a drive in the mountains except for that shock of raven hair and those startling deep blue eyes… and I realized I was staring, and still saying nothing. She seemed nervous, and that was just wrong.

“Rick called me last week,” I said, then felt like a fool for saying it.

She flashed an unsure smile, then her eyes dropped, looking at the ground. “Rick, he… he talks too much, doesn’t he?” she said, and I swear she stammered just a bit, but her voice was low and sweet like honey.

Damn, this was bad. She looked like all she wanted to do was turn around and leave, make like she’d never come here, and I was urging her on because I was too afraid to say anything, so afraid of what might come out that my teeth were clenched and I was shaking.

“I suppose he does,” I managed to force out, but damn that was almost worse, so I finished with, “but he was telling you the truth.”

“I know he was,” she whispered, then she lifted her eyes and looked me in the face again, “I knew it the instant he said it, it all made so much sense.”

“Angela? Why are you here?”

“I… I don’t really know. I’ve been sitting in a hotel room in Montpelier for the last five days trying to figure it out. It’s just that when Rick just dropped that in my lap… I had this urge to come and see you. I guess I needed to see if you were okay.”

She smiled then, that radiant expression that graced so many magazine covers, but it was more beautiful than anything I could remember seeing in many years. But it didn’t matter, and that was the real tragedy.

“Angela… that’s the past. Best for both of us if it just stays there.”

She didn’t say anything and I took up the axe, yanking it free of the block, then struck it in to another piece and hefted it to the block.

“My father died when I was five,” she said, “when I was just old enough to understand what it meant for him to be gone.”

I stopped what I was doing, just resting the axe on the block, leaning on it, watching her.

“I always thought you had been like a father to me, the way you wrote for me, helped me learn my character, let me grow her… but it never really felt like a father/daughter thing to me. I just forced myself to call it that because I didn’t know how else to describe it. I was seventeen, just a kid…”

I could see where this was going. In a way it was so very kind of her, but it was wrong in so many ways that I had to give her a chance to stop herself.

“You weren’t in love with me, Angela.”

She surprised me by nodding, and then she smiled.

“I was too young and stupid for love, but… I was sitting in that hotel room in Montpelier, trying to figure out what made me come all the way out here and I realized something, something important: I have never, not before and not since, felt so very alive as I did those years working with you. It wasn’t just the show or the new fame… it was trusting you, knowing that you were going to create something just for me, every week, knowing you trusted me to bring it to life for you, and knowing that I could do it, and do it like nobody else could have… And now I know I missed something.”

“I made sure you missed it,” I told her. Hell it would have been impossible anyhow, but I didn’t say that. Instead I shifted nervously on my feet and fiddled with the axe handle. Angela just stared at me; no more than five feet away, so beautiful and so open I could taste her in the air.

I knew it was just a matter of asking. She hadn’t flown half way around the world to ask me to rescue a dodgy script. But could I bear to do it? Could I survive it if I reached out to touch her and in the end she backed away? There wouldn’t be any guarantees- there never are in the business of men and women. I’d already had one magnificent love in my life- did I really expect I might have another? And look where I was, standing under that damned oak tree, right where I was when I was told my father was gone, right where I was when I learned my wife and children perished screaming and helpless in a burning wreck, right where I was when my mother called me, gasping out her final breaths as her heart failed from sheer grief.

This was a damned terrible place to be standing, trying to nerve myself, feeling foolish and helpless like some schoolboy daring to ask the homecoming queen to the prom. It tore at me, the need to just try, to see if there would ever be anything between us, and the certainty that this was doomed, and the burning anger that welled up so sudden and furious that I cried out, making her start as I seized up the axe and hefted it, hauling down with all my might so that it bit deep, yanking it free and striking again, letting fury drive me like a wild man, knowing that as insane as this was it was the only way, the only hope I had.

“What are you doing?” she gasped.

“I’m cutting down this goddamned oak tree.”

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