BY JANE EMRICK
On the afternoon they go to find the tree, she insists on bringing the dog. It is something to sit between them on the truck seat; something to focus on, to talk to and about. It provides a safe space between, a reason not to claim the intimacy of holding hands, or of thighs touching as they drive.
This whole afternoon, he thinks, is a nuisance. He has agreed to go and is instantly resentful of it, this muddy, gray December afternoon outing to get the tree. It brings to mind his own early tree experiences, not outside, but unpleasant all the same. Helping his mother set fiberglass branches slot A into tab A, main trunk B into stand C, while his father paced and drank and criticized. The same tree, every year, same red-white checked bows and matching Lenox china ornaments of gleaming ivory edged with gold paint. It was the illusion of perfect, he muses, so different from his life now, as he parks the truck and follows his wife through the weedy field and rows of unshaped pine.
It has always been like this with them, he thinks, her child-like enthusiasm urging him to go with her, to run the errands or take the walk or drive to the farm to pick peaches on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Him always set on not going. Why does he always give her a hard time? He wonders. Is it out of habit, repeating patterns forged from the painful fires of his own childhood? Is it a decades-old dread that no perfectly planned family outing could ever end well?
Yet he sees that this is what has drawn him to her since their first meeting, her need to make things warm, her sense of home so different from his own. Drawn to the genuineness of her mismatched IKEA plates, and the coat she got from Goodwill. And that sad-eyed, lop-eared dog, rescued from a shelter where it had arrived so badly abused it was deemed unadoptable. That was her heart, her essence, he thinks as they tramp through the field of evergreens. She seems to him a collector of damaged things, as if by the sheer effort of love she can restore and make valuable what was cast aside by others. Even the dog senses this, always walking close enough to touch, following her around the house with its quiet padded feet, never demanding, but just grateful to be near her.
He follows behind them now, with a vague sense of envy, watching the dog, watching her tamp down long grasses as she inspects each tree “to see which one needs us,” as she would say. He thinks, in a way, that he was like the dog, to her– a broken thing in need of rescue, despite his façade of capability and his financial success. It was that way with them from the very start. He noticed her guileless face, open for listening. They started taking long walks and having endless talks. She was so easy to talk to, seemed so interested in hearing him share about his life before her. Hearing about his hopes and dreams for a different future. And from the start, he knew she’d stay. “Loyalty is my strong suit,” she’d told him early on, laughing. “I’m like a bulldog with a bone, so you’d better be sure you want me ’cause you’ll never get rid of me.”
And God, he’d wanted her. Drank her in like a balm, and couldn’t get enough. That was early days, when he ignored the speed limit just to get to her faster. They’d had good chemistry right from the start, and although his parents treated her coolly, even now after nearly a dozen years, she never let it get to her. “You and me, against the world,” she’d sing, after a particularly difficult visit.
A watery sun bravely peeks through the gray afternoon as he tramps behind her and lights a cigarette. He wants to say “just pick one–they’re all the same, it doesn’t matter,” but he knows this will hurt her feelings. A few more minutes of this and we’ll be done, he thinks, and takes a deep drag to calm his impatience.
Last Christmas, there almost hadn’t been a tree. He’d been involved on a project in Denver– or was it Atlanta?– It would have been easier to just work through the holiday on-site, celebrate later when he got home, like they did when he missed a birthday or anniversary. He’d hung up on her when she cried on the phone. Jesus, didn’t she understand anything about business? But the next night, when she called back, told him it had taken her half the day to find him a seat on a flight late on the 23rd, and would he please take it? And he did. Found her home wrapping colored lights on a skinny four-footer, a tree small enough that it had fit in the trunk of her Volkswagen, “And I only had to pay $5 extra for the boy to cut it, “ she’d explained.
The year before that, finding the tree had been quite a festive day. They’d been really involved in church then, had made friends with a few other couples. She had this “progressive party” idea. “It’ll be four couples, all friends, and we’ll all go together,” she explained. “Get our trees together and share the day.” At each house, the trees would be set up and then part of a meal shared–appetizers and drinks here, dinner at another, dessert, coffee. A whole day. “You’ll see, it’ll be fun, and I’ll do all the work so you don’t have to worry about a thing,” she’d said. He almost didn’t go, had decided not to, until Jeff called and talked him into it.
Three trees went on top of Richard’s minivan (that was before they’d gotten the truck) and one tied onto the open trunk of his old Buick. He’d bitched about the needles in the trunk. She’d promised to clean them up.
That December, the eight of them– nine, if you counted Bill and Linda’s baby in their backpack– went to two different farms looking for trees. They’d walked through endless rows, and compared prices; considered and rejected trees; made jokes about “Charlie Brown” scraggly pines and 30-foot cedars. The men had taken turns with the saw. And then to Carole and Richard’s to wrestle with their old stand, eat cheese and crackers and hear the story of their first Christmas together. Then to Jeff and Jen’s where the long-needled soft pine had curved over way beyond the low ceiling in their apartment. We all swore Jeff would never live that one down! He had to lop two feet off the top! Jen had taken pictures, and served some sort of chili soup with tortilla chips and beer.
Then, it was off to Bill and Linda’s. They’d thrown their tree into a bucket of water in the basement and ordered pizza. Bill and Linda still acted like lovesick teenagers, although he was pretty sure they were the oldest of the bunch. He remembers now their explanation about not “doing the tree” till Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed, so they’d think Santa brought it all. And then a sadder note, the story about losing that third baby, and trying three more years before this one.
And then, finally, to their own place, with the largest tree of all. Just right for the nine-foot ceilings in their old restored colonial. He knew he’d have to help her decorate this one, since he had insisted on getting such a tall one. Already he was regretting that decision and the work ahead. He didn’t like decorating their tree and usually just let her do the job.
But once the Douglas fir was bottom-trimmed to fit the stand–with her insisting on a fresh base cut, no less, so it would be sure to “drink” more–he could see how beautiful it would become. She’d been up early to make that Swedish cinnamon ring he liked, and he saw her stifle yawns as they ate dessert with their friends and drank coffee from her grandmother’s good china cups. That year, he entertained the gang with his own story of the latest trip to London and the ticket-baggage fiasco during his return flight. He could still remember the sweet mixed fragrances of evergreen, coffee and cinnamon, and lemon wood polish.
That had been a good year for finding trees, he thought. And helping her decorate, just that once, it wasn’t so awful. Too bad he’d had that argument with Jeff, and stopped going to services. And where was that phone message from Bill? He called a month ago, but work had been so busy…
“I think we found it!” her happy cry cuts short his reverie as she gestures for him to come and see. He flicks his wasted butt aside, grinds it into the mud with the heel of one Timberland work boot, and catches up to her and the dog. To him, this tree looks exactly like all the others around it, but “This one’s speaking to me,” she insists, walking all around it. “If we just put this side against the wall? Do you think?”
He takes her in– scruffy ponytail full of pine-straw, scruffy dog and old rubber boots. The big brown eyes and her ready smile. He wonders, not for the first time, why she hasn’t left him. Why after all the ruined dinners and phone calls from airports, after missed anniversaries and hurtful things he’s done. Wonders why his parents don’t like her, but then again, they hadn’t liked any of the girls he’d taken home to meet them. Hell, he thought, they don’t even like each other.
Her voice snaps him back to the moment. “Is this it?” she asks, smiling, eyes shining, hand reaching toward him, a lifeline. Is this it?
“Yeah,” he replies, smiling back, reaching out, taking hold.