Another nice story for you. Fiction. Now without the angry rant.
Madeline finds the tree on a Wednesday. She is walking. The tree, its trunk massive, its bark like elephant skin, is on Gantenbien and Shaver. The tree is behind a small board fence, and its limbs extend out over the street. It is the largest tree, says Madeline, between MLK and the river.
It is the very end of wintertime, the wet season, and rain falls every day. Madeline walks everywhere. She has hurt her wrist, and so she cannot ride her bicycle. She also cannot play her violin. The violin, expensive and beautiful, sits in its case, and exudes the lonely smell of rosin.
Without her violin or her bicycle, Madeline feels that she lacks a sense of purpose. Sadness gathers around her like spiderwebs. But sadness is beautiful, and so is walking, and walking is what brought her to the tree.
One afternoon, Madeline is passing beneath the tree when buckets of water begin to fall from the dark, clouded sky. Madeline stands, clutching her wool coat, and watches the water fall. The circle of sidewalk and grass beneath the tree is dry, and after five minutes the clouds are exhausted, and they roll rapidly away, and the sun comes out, and Madeline is able to continue on her way.
Sometimes, on her walks, Madeline stops in front of the tree, and talks to it. She puts her small hands on the board fence and leans over into the patch of dirt in which the tree sits and she tells the tree that she is sure that one day, she and the tree will be together. Behind the tree is a house. In the house live people who Madeline does not know. On the porch is a chair, and a big window, behind which Madeline can see a dog. The mail comes to the house at four in the afternoon. Once, through the big window, Madeline saw a woman bent over the kitchen sink, rinsing spaghetti in a colander. Another day, while Madeline stood on the sidewalk, beneath the shadow of the tree, she saw an old woman step from a Volvo and walk slowly up the to the board fence, holding her sweater closed against her chest. That was Sunday, the day that the people of the neighborhood keep irregular hours, have cookouts, and congregate. Madeline feels loneliest on Sunday, and her life, on that day, seems to have the least purpose. After seeing the old woman, Madeline walked on, and after a few moments she passed the big open doors of the catholic church. Through the church doors she could smell incense and dim, dusty air. An ornate, windowless cathedral obscures the baldness of everyday life, thought Madeline, as continued to walk.
Today is Tuesday, a cloudy day, and Madeline stands beneath the tree. It is a workday, and the house is silent, save for the dog, who whines at the window. Madeline leans against the fence and waits until the mail carrier drops the letters into the metal receptacle beside the front door. He does not see her, standing there, and she watches him go, his calves muscular beneath his blue canvas shorts. Mail carriers, she thinks, have more of a sense of purpose than almost anyone. Gently, Madeline lifts the latch on the small board fence, and crosses the dirt yard, and steals up the front steps of the house. She reaches her small hand into the mailbox and extracts a blue envelope. She puts it into the pocket of her wool coat. Back in the dirt yard, she presses her hand against the tree. Then she walks home.
The blue envelope contains a dentist’s bill for three composite fillings. There is a two hundred dollar deductible, thirty dollars is the remainder.
Madeline is standing in her small room, and she turns the bill over in her hands. Her heavy velvet curtains are drawn over the windows. Her violin case sits, neglected, next to her stack of library books. Each day, when she would be playing her violin, she reads a library book instead. She also reads the books at night, when she cannot sleep.
Madeline looks at the bill for clues. It is a single piece of paper, folded three times, addressed to a man. It was printed on a computer, although someone has circled the outstanding balance with a red pen. Who? Did the dentist do this? Or his secretary? Madeline folds the bill, and returns it to its envelope.
At five o’clock the next afternoon, Madeline again mounts the steps of the house on whose property her tree lives. This time, Madeline rings the doorbell, pressing her finger firmly against the round brass button. The dog, inside, hears her movements, and begins to bark. The floorboards rattle and then the door opens, and a woman stands in the doorway. The woman is wearing loose athletic pants and her brown hair is pulled back from her face. She carries a pomegranate, broken open, and the fingers of her hand are stained red.
“Hello.” Says Madeline, before the woman can speak. “I got a piece of your mail by accident. I live a little west of here.” Madeline holds the blue envelope out in front of her.
The woman shakes her head.
“We’re in between routes, so there’s no regular mail carrier on this route. I’m sorry.”
“I opened it by accident,” says Madeline, “before I looked at the address.”
The woman takes the envelope in the hand that is not holding the pomegranate, and glances at its front.
“That’s alright.” she says. “It’s just a bill.”
The dog, who has been pushing against the woman’s leg, gets loose and stands on the porch beneath Madeline, trembling. Madeline puts her small hand on the dog’s wide, flat back.
“What’s your dog’s name?” She asks.
“Rupert.” Says the woman, frowning.
“Oh!” Says Madeline, her fingers stroking the dog’s fur. “I used to have a dog just like this! When I was a kid. Or my grandpa did, rather.” She runs her hand under the dog’s collar, and scratches him there. The dog closes his eyes, although his body continues to wriggle.
“Really?” Says the woman. “He’s a mastiff shepherd pit-bull mix. My mother got him at the pound. Rupert!” She admonishes the dog. “Rupert go inside!” The dog ceases to wriggle and looks up at Madeline with wet, dark-brown eyes.
“He’s a handful.” Says the woman. “I’ve been taking care of him since my mother’s been sick, and he won’t do anything that I say. Rupert!” She barks at the dog. “Rupert!”
“I just can’t believe how much he looks like the dog my grandfather had when I was a kid.” She looks up at the woman. “Say, you wouldn’t need a dog walker, would you? I’ve got a lot of time on my hands right now. And I live right down the street.”
The woman scrunches up her face, and looks out at the street.
“You wouldn’t have to pay me.” Madeline puts both her hands on the dog. “I could come by tomorrow, even, in the afternoon.”
The woman looks at Madeline.
“He pulls.” She says. “He’s not used to being walked.”
“That’s alright.” Says Madeline. “My grandpa’s dog used to pull too. I’m used to dogs that pull.”
The woman sighs.
“That sure would help me out. Tell you what. I’ll put him in the yard, and I’ll leave the leash draped over the gate. It would be amazing if you could walk him.” She sighs again, and the lines around her mouth relax. “I work at the hospital, and I’m not always around to give him exercise. He gets pent up in the house, and eats my magazines. And he pees on the kitchen floor.”
“That’s awful.” Says Madeline. The corners of the woman’s mouth get tight again, and she looks as if she might cry.
The dog moves closer to Madeline.
“My name’s Madeline.” She says.
“Bethany.” Says the woman. The woman drops the envelope on a table by the door and they shake hands, the woman’s limp, cool hand in Madeline’s small warm one.
“That sure would be a help.” Says Bethany again. She looks at the hand that holds the pomegranate, at the fingers where the juice has dried.
“I better get going.” Says Madeline. “I’ve got to get home.”
“Alright.” Says the woman, and nods. “We’ll see you tomorrow.” She steps inside, and the dog follows her. She closes the door.
On Wednesday Madeline eats a lunch of goat cheese, corn tortillas, and cold coffee, and then she walks to Gantenbein and Shaver. The day is clear and cool, and the tree shakes its small serrated leaves at her, making a rattling like castanets. It is springtime. Madeline unlatches the gate and steps into the small dirt yard. The dog is there, lying in the sun, and it lifts its head to look at her, unalarmed. Madeline walks up to the tree and stretches her arms wide, leaning her full weight against its bark. The bark is smooth and convoluted, and smells faintly of vanilla. Madeline leans her cheek against the tree, and breathes its smell. In front of her face is a dark, dusty crevice, and Madeline runs her fingers along its edges, thinking of the tiny creatures that make their homes there.
They make their homes there, in the furrows of the bark, and it is world enough for them.
There is dappled light beneath the tree, and Madeline lays down in it. She watches the spring sky through the way high-up boughs of the tree. The dog gets up, crosses the dirt yard, and collapses next to Madeline. She can feel the very tips of his hairs where they brush the arm of her sweater. She reaches over, and puts one hand on the dog. She can feel his ribs rising, and beneath that, the gentle pounding of his heart. The yard is quiet, and down the street, a wind chime tinkles. A single cloud sets out across the sky, and Madeline watches it wend its way among the tree leaves.
They make their homes there, in the furrows of the bark, and it is world enough for them.
Madeline wakes on her side, her shoulder wedged painfully in the dirt. Her arm is around the dog, who is facing away, asleep. Warmth comes from his fur and Madeline thinks, momentarily, of a bear.
She stands, and brushes off her clothing. She does not know what time it is, but the afternoon has clouded over, and the air feels like rain. Madeline lifts the leash from the fence, and moves it to the porch. Then she latches the gate behind her, and walks home.
For the next week, Madeline is abruptly busy, and she does not have time for her usual walks. Her mother is in town, unexpectedly, with the man she is dating, and Madeline accompanies them to the Japanese gardens, the bookstore, and the rose festival. She has dinner with them on the rooftop of a restaurant on Burnside, and she drinks enough wine to insure that she does not have to fake enthusiasm over the cool steamed mussels and dry, salty bread. Madeline’s mother talks enough for ten people, and requires nothing from Madeline but the audience. Madeline’s mother works for an insurance company, and has a cat named Ginger who she does not, as far as Madeline can tell, love. Madeline’s mother has a bad foot which requires constant salt baths and the vibrations of small electrical appliances ordered from Parade magazine. Madeline’s mother’s boyfriend repairs tractors, builds birdhouses from small scraps of wood, and speaks only in the literal. They live, together, in a manufactured home in eastern Washington.
By the time Madeline rounds the corner of Shaver onto Gantenbein and sees the tree’s great bulk before her, like a ship in the air, nearly eight days have passed. It is mid-morning, and the house is silent. Madeline stands, looking at the tree’s grey trunk, and then she sees the leash, draped neatly over the gate. The dog, too, is there, resting in the yard. It stands when it sees Madeline, and small sticks and bits of debris hang from its shaggy coat.
Madeline circles the tree, tracing her fingers along its girth. The lowest limb is a good few feet above her head, and she fetches the wooden chair from the porch, and sets it against the base of the tree. Standing on the chair, she can just wrap her hands around the tree’s lowest limb. Tensing her muscles, she swings her legs up against the tree and then walks them up over the limb. For a moment she hangs, feeling the wrinkles in the tree’s cool bark where they bite into her skin. Then she swings up, and into the tree.
Once she is in the tree, the leaves close around her, and she is invisible. Madeline looks below her, at the wooden chair, and at the dog’s upturned face. She looks above her, at the tree’s great, kaleidoscoping mass, and around her, at all the other limbs within reach. She finds a groove in the bark in which she is able to fit the tip of her canvas slipper, and a knot which fits, almost perfectly, in the palm of her hand, and she lifts herself up.