Several weeks after his forty-seventh birthday, Jules decided that he and his wife, Laura, should go parasailing. He had read about it in an outdoorsy type of men's magazine and later, when he Googled "parasailing," a web site popped up from an outfit on the island of Bonaire. There were pictures of toucans and grass-thatched taverns and sunsets that struck the horizon with passionate colors. The water appeared unnaturally clear, as if two layers of pure air had been set atop one another, separated only by a thin, glassine membrane beneath which swarmed fantastically hued fishes. The parasailors in the web site photos were all grins and thumbs-up, adrenalined to giddiness. It was all so perfectly antithetical to his current state that Jules was immediately heartsick for the lack of it.
Parasailing itself promised the unfamiliar rapture of sport. Jules imagined the visceral twist as he lifted out of the water, the thrum of electrons surging along rarely used neural pathways. Beyond his dangling toes lines of sea drift would be etched white across a cobalt bay; the startled stares of gulls would reach him at eye level; the balmy air would flutter the rigid hairs on his forearms. Afterwards, he and Laura sipping some syrupy concoction in the shelter of a grass-roofed bar, peeling fat shrimp, giggling and licking their fingers—the hedonistic foreplay of lovers by the ocean.
"It sounds dumb. Paragliding."
"Parasailing," he said.
"It's not dumb. It's beautiful. You're way up in the air. You can see everything."
"I'd get sick."
"It's not like that," Jules said. "It's very smooth."
"How do you know?"
This was a delicate matter—proposing something he knew nothing about to his pragmatic wife—and a well-designed buoyancy was required. He originally had thought to romanticize Bonaire, paint the vibrancy and lure of island travel. The gorgeous weather. Visits to lush, vanilla-scented spas. Then he had out-thought himself. Reasoning that Laura wouldn't respond to travel-brochure imagery, he tried a quick opening gambit—ta da! We should try parasailing! In Bonaire! It was a doomed strategy. Instead of piquing her curiosity, he had put her on alert—pushed the needle of her malarkey meter into the red zone. What middle-age angst was afoot? She stood by the family room sofa, folding clothes fresh from the dryer, snapping out T-shirts and towels and not looking at him, her reserve pointed as a lance. His round, plump enthusiasm was deflating. "I saw it in your woman's magazine. You know the one. People of all ages do it. It's not dangerous at all. It's exhilarating. Life-affirming."
"Life-threatening maybe. Anyway, we've hardly paid off the patio furniture." A trump card played—finances.
"You're missing the point. It'll be an adventure. It'll be good for us. To do something incredible. Together."
"We've got two boys in expensive colleges. Or have you forgotten?" Ace of trumps.
"We can afford a vacation now and then. We deserve it."
"If you want to take me for a vacation, take me to Santa Fe like you promised."
"Santa Fe isn't original. It isn't exciting."
"It is to me."
"This would be different. It would be, um, life-affirming." Had he said that already? He was hacking at a fast-growing jungle with a butter knife.
"What about sharks?"
"I'm not parachuting into an ocean full of sharks. We'd be bait."
"We're not going to get attacked by sharks."
Laura creased a pair of his jeans with the blade of her hand. Jules winced. He did not like frontal creases in his jeans. "The ocean is full of sharks," she said. "It's not like they're not there. That poor kid from Germany was eaten the other week swimming near Tampa."
Jules sighed. His wife's logic was seamless, quicksilver, providing no entry point. She might even be right. It probably was a dumb idea. And probably more expensive than he figured. And truly, to think about it, the notion of sharks made him uneasy. He imagined how the tow boat might lose momentum near the end of his run, allowing him to drift closer and closer to the water. Looking down, he would see eager fins cutting toward his skimming shadow while those in the boat laughed and sloshed beer, oblivious to his frantic signals.
The fact she might be right, however, was beside the point. Ideas were at stake. Imagination. The inalienable right to think up dumb stuff. Certainly fielding these little outbursts was a precious and necessary spousal skill, and here his wife had failed. She could not bring herself to indulge his fantasy for the briefest of moments, to provide the slightest breath of air under his wings. What would it cost, a moment's indulgence? It had become characteristic of her. His more inventive notions were nothing more than clay pigeons. The powdery residue of his exuberance hung in the air.
That afternoon Jules took his coffee on the newly installed patio under the canopy of their unpredictable ash tree. Some summers, the ash behaved marvelously and provided thick, gorgeous shade. Others, the leaves curled as if they had been blowtorched. Jules had taken samples of malignant leaves to experts in the area, the local nursery and such, where he was directed to do a variety of curatives that included the subterranean injection of vitamins, and boring holes in the trunk and filling the cavities with solutions of iron. It all seemed to make little difference, and the ash cycled its capricious way through good years and bad. Perhaps environmental factors were involved. Microwaves and cell phone radiation playing havoc with phototropic responses. Nevertheless this year had begun well, and the foliage was luscious.
Although the ash was the only substantial tree in the immediate backyard, Jules and Laura owned a nicely wooded New Jersey property of almost two acres. A smooth green oval of lawn, bordered by perennial beds of hostas and lungworts, ultimately yielded to a cacophony of twisted trunks, branches, and scrub brush that composed the wood lot. Early on, when they had first purchased the property, Jules had attempted to tame the wood lot with judicious thinning and other worthy management practices, to little avail. He had cut up some small scrub trees, thinking to fuel romantic fires he occasionally envisioned but rarely kindled, and to this day a stack of eighteen-inch long logs sat moldering by the side of the garage where they housed a chipmunk colony. Spindly hawthorns and soft maples now proliferated, and whatever worthwhile trees existed were content to develop at a retarded pace, accompanied by an abundance of stubborn flora that splurged across the forest floor and vined its way up the thick gray trunks.
Today as he contemplated, Jules noticed that one of the big trees that stood at the edge of the woods had died. This struck him as odd. How did one of the largest living things in his domain get so thoroughly dead without his reckoning? As he understood, mature trees take years to die. Had it been that long since he last appraised his little forest?
Jules walked over to the tree, carrying his coffee mug. It was bigger up close than from far away, resplendent with bulbous warts and knobs. From the brownish leaves that clung to the tips of branches he could tell it was an oak. The bark seemed lighter than brethren trees in the wood lot, ash gray rather than deep slate, and in places the bark had lifted up to reveal an inner surface with a suspiciously grooved texture. Perhaps some kind of larva was to blame. He could sense the enormous weight, the dense mass lifting overhead into the sky. He looked up the length of trunk to where the upper branches dissolved in fuzzy blue and his sense of balance came undone. Jules stood back, took a deep breath and tried to judge the girth. A good two-and-a-half feet thick. Call it three. It would have to come down, of course. If it was diseased or infected, it would put other oaks in the neighborhood at risk. But such an operation wouldn't be cheap. A good-size tree cost thousands to remove. That certainly would punt Bonaire into the distant future.
As he returned to his deck, Jules had an inspiration. He would take the tree down himself. He owned a chainsaw, although he hadn't used it in years, and he was fairly sure it would do the job. It was an eager tool, and years back he had come to some proficiency with it. From a distance he studied the oak and tried to judge where the topmost branches would land. The tree had a slight natural leaning toward the west. The crown was decidedly off-center that way. When it came to felling a tree, you couldn't fight gravity; you went with it. This much he knew. The line of fall would be parallel to the edge of his lawn, making access to the carcass easy for limbing and cutting up the trunk. West it was. He calculated a rough geometry that placed the crown well within the southern border of his property, a good thirty or forty feet from the precious rhododendrons of his neighbor, Mrs. Higgins.
His chainsaw, a Husquavarna, was stashed in the far reaches under a workbench in the garage. He had to move an old washing machine drainage hose and a rusted sewer snake to get it. He tried to be quiet. If Laura detected unnatural noises coming from the garage, she surely would investigate. An inept liar, he would confess. She would insist he didn't know what he was doing and that professionals should be called in. He would be obliged to get at least three bids, in writing. Common sense would triumph. Which, in many regards, would be a pity.
Dust and grime had settled on the oily surfaces of the chainsaw and covered the engine housing with a spongy crust a quarter of an inch thick. The twenty-inch-long blade looked smaller than he remembered. An examination of the chain recalled the last time the tool had been used. Or, more accurately, his sons had used it. Blake, the eldest, had tried to cut fireplace logs from a felled soft maple but, lacking the common sense that God gave snails, had run the blade completely through, plunging it into the dirt and a hidden rock, causing a spectacular geyser of sparks and ruining the chain. Examining the saw now, years later, Jules recalled the long trip to the hardware store and Blake's resentful purchase of a new chain—a lesson in accountability that probably had no long-term effect other than to foment filial resentment (it was an accident, for Crissakes!), and to make Blake long for the day when he would be free of Jules' nonsense. Ah, autonomy. This Jules understood. The freedom to make one's own decisions, and to profit or perish by the results. He ran a thumb along the new chain and immediately cut himself on one of the precisely honed teeth. A thin line of blood appeared. Jules smiled and sucked it clean, relishing the iron taste like a hungry shark.
On Saturday, Laura had a date to meet friends for lunch and then go shopping for bridal shower gifts for somebody's daughter. As she got ready Jules waited impatiently in the living room, feigning interest in the New York Times. As soon as he heard the garage door begin to descend, he crept to the windows and peered out to verify that she indeed was driving away. With an outlaw's elation he raced upstairs and changed into a pair of crisply creased jeans and a faded T-shirt. Out in the garage he retrieved the chain saw from its hiding place. He found the gas can and gave it a swish to check for fuel. He certainly didn't want to spend precious time down at the filling station. A gurgle and shifting of weight indicated there was leftover gas. True, it was years old. He had heard that old gas should be replaced annually, but he was skeptical. Surely gas was gas. Put it to spark and it would undoubtedly ignite. Anyway, time was of the essence. He filled the saw's tank, grabbed his gloves and goggles.
The wood lot smelled of damp, rotting nature—wood and leaves nibbled by dark little beetles and worms and masses of microorganisms, a vaporous stew of decomposition. Wrens and robins flitted through the dark tangled canopy and he could hear male cardinals bullying each other with clear, precise declarations. He studied his quarry. The tree was forlorn, its branches confused and purposeless. Taking down a standing dead tree, especially one that might be diseased, was excellent stewardship.
He fitted the goggles over his eyes and hefted the saw, feeling gladiatorial. He stabbed at the primer four times and gave the pull start a hearty tug. Nothing. Again, a few primes and forceful heaves on the starter handle. Each time the rope eased its way back into the machine, limp and sheepish. He repeated the start-up requirements for a good five minutes, his exasperation tinged with panic. He was sweating and hadn't even begun to work. At last he realized he had failed to activate the On/Off switch. He toggled it On and at his next tug the machine gave a throaty snarl and farted out a spinning globe of gray exhaust. The sudden torque nearly pried the tool from his hands. He gunned the engine, spewing poisonous fumes. Old fuel. Acrid vapors seeped behind his goggles and made his eyes water, and he had to take a moment to reorient himself. With the saw burbling at an uneven idle, he lined up his cuts. Bottom cut, angle cut, back cut. One, two, three. Nice and easy.
The factory-sharp teeth were sweet. The blade melted into the timber and spewed out a torrent of cream-colored chips that covered his gloves and arms. The pungent smell of oak, the bitter exhaust, the manic scream of the engine were tonic, purging and cleansing his sensibilities, leaving his core wondrously focused and primal. There could be no turning back now. He had moved ahead, invoked the gods of self-determination, severed xylem and phloem. What man has put asunder, let no woman join together.
He leaned his weight against the tool, muscling it into the tree. The blade was shorter than the diameter of the trunk and he was obliged to work back-and-forth, rocking the blade to complete a semi-circle, but in a few minutes the first cut was complete and he toggled off the saw and stood back to inspect his work. Unfortunately, the line of his cut wasn't at all parallel to the ground but dipped, creating a dark indelible curve. "Crap," said Jules. He would have to do much better with the trickier angle cut. Picking up a stone, Jules scratched a guideline in the bark. Smart. He looked around, half expecting to see Laura, fists on hips, recording his transgression with her dry blue eyes. In fact, he almost wished that she would come home and find him like this, nobly defending the property from decay and attrition, presenting an uncharacteristically swashbuckling figure: damp T-shirt, leather gloves, his forearms covered with the pulverized flesh of his adversary, face (he could only imagine) striated with grime, the whole of himself blurred within the smoke of battle. She would see his essence, his core maleness, and she would be overcome with regret for each petty riposte and touché by which their marriage had bled. Her insight would be belated. He was beyond mercy. He would stride up to her, a leer dangling from his lips. Grab her, pin her hands behind her back, tip her onto his perfectly thick, green lawn (thank you, Scott's Summer Weed ‘N' Feed), press his sweaty, grimy face into her soft mouth. Afterwards, he would leave her. Call his lawyer, pack his bags, be gone before she could catch her breath and pull up her panties. He peered through the haze toward the back door and the deck. No Laura.
Entertaining as that scenario might be, Jules balked at the thought of divorce. The protracted, legal wrangling stretched to satanic lengths by oily-haired, one-hundred-dollar-per-quarter-hour lawyers; him huddled in some stale apartment while Laura, happily untethered, flitted merrily to and from her—formerly their—tidy, well-maintained house in the woods. He supposed this was a primary reason why people selected spousal murder as an alternative to divorce—it was a so-much quicker and cheaper solution. But how to proceed? He supposed he could simply do away with her. It wasn't as if people who had been married for decades didn't entertain such thoughts now and then. Lure her out into the forest on some pretext, bash her skull with a rock or—consider the irony—a branch of sturdy oak. Dismember her with the chain saw, bury the pieces in separate little elfin graves. How long could he maintain a deception? He sighed. Not long. Laura was too well-networked. She would be missed immediately. Her sister, Helen, from Pittsburgh, called almost every day. Excuses such as, she's in the shower, she's at the store, would only go so far. Two weeks, tops. He might buy more time with a more elaborate lie. She's gone to Bonaire, Jules would tell everyone. She's run off with a tree trimmer. She left a note claiming she wants to be a professional parasailor.
The second cut was harrowing. Although he tried to follow his roughed-in guideline, the saw seemed to have its own will in the matter and the blade kept wandering off. He had to wrestle the tool to follow his line, forcing the blade and bogging down the engine. An unfortunate burnt smell ensued, and the chips that spewed forth now ranged from deep brown to black, like crumbs of charred toast. The angle cut overshot the first cut by a good two inches. When Jules shut off the saw and pushed back his goggles, he realized that both cuts were past center. The weight of the unsupported mass was more than the supported weight, which was not good physics at all, and there was more cutting yet to do. This kind of unskilled tomfoolery, he judged, is what kept emergency rooms busy on weekends. Perhaps, if he had not been in such a rush to finish before his wife came home with her withering disapproval, he would have taken more time, been steadier. Buttressed by spousal confidence, success might have been assured.
It was gruesome work. The chain, dulled by the hard oak fibers and by his awkward manipulations, refused to cut effectively. The smell of scorched wood mingled with the stench of rancid exhaust. Sweat ran across the lenses of his goggles, distorting his vision. When he at last finished a ragged apex to his triangle, the resulting wedge of wood would not budge. Somewhere in the stoic trunk, uncut fibers held fast. There was a metaphor here for life, he supposed, and the futility of even the mildest aspirations. He kicked at the wedge with the heel of his sneaker but could not dislodge it.
So Jules edged the tip of the blade into the cut, grinding away more wood. He surely was nudging ever closer to some catastrophic point where the tree would violently explode from the unnatural pressures accumulated within, blasting deadly splinters into his neck, chest, and groin. The enormous trunk, stricken, would rotate on its shattered base, a wounded Goliath, and then slowly fall as he, bleeding and stunned, tried to stagger out of the way. He would only reach the edge of his lawn before the big tree would find him, crush him, its mighty weight pressing him into the fescue and squishing the juices out of his guts. Laura would eventually discover the mayhem, the realization unfolding in slow motion: the enormous fallen tree, the errant chain saw (perhaps still puttering away), and then his arm, a single limb, sticking out from underneath, the gloved hand. The casket would have to be closed. There would be some sorrow and excellent wine at the after-funeral get-together. Laura, still a trim size eight, would make a comely widow.
Amazingly, the wedge moved. It went limp in its pocket, as if it had decided to give up. Jules withdrew the saw and struck the wedge with his heel. The chunk slid out and fell to the ground, leaving a ragged but impressive void, surfaces blackened and still smoldering from the horrendous friction. He was relieved but anxious, for the big tree—it seemed to grow more massive each time he considered it—was now held upright by the most tenuous of possibilities. He quickly moved to the other side for the coup de gras. The chain was hot and running dangerously loose in its track. Any sort of real woodsman would have sharpened the teeth, lubricated and tightened the chain, but Jules' only thought was to get the whole thing over with. He leaned his weight into the work, and the saw began to gag. The cut line was agonizingly shallow.
Then, it happened. There were a succession of startling cracks, like bullwhips snapping past his ears, and the oak began to lean. At first it was a barely perceptible shift, but immediately Jules stumbled backwards a few steps and shut off the saw. The gray trunk lingered upright, snared in a web of spidery sun and shadow, and within that moment the unknowable future struck perfect balance with the inevitable, and the world was hushed. There came a rustling overhead, the tree groaned, then a roar gathered as the crown moved through the surrounding canopy, tearing out limbs and branches from other trees; a sound that grew vast and absorbed every sensibility. Jules was fixed by the spectacle, unable to move. With a thunderous exclamation the trunk hit the ground, and then there was a soft shimmering rain that Jules realized was not a rain at all but the drift of tiny twigs and severed leaves falling through the hazy air and pattering onto the forest floor.
Jules took a deep breath, pushed his goggles up onto his forehead. It was done. He looked around, certain the commotion would attract attention. Kids running over, Hey Mister! Hey, Mister! Did you cut that tree down? Neighbors would come trailing into his backyard, hands-over-mouths. Good Lord, Jules, what have you done?
But no one came. No one yelled. No sirens approached. Jules stood for several minutes, letting normalcy reassert itself. The birds resumed chirping. Leaves meandered through the air; wisps of exhaust hung like forest wraiths in the scattered sunlight. He put down the saw. His hands tingled from vibration. He began to walk the length of the old oak. The dry, brittle canopy was enormous, and pushed out a good thirty feet onto his lawn. Thousands of little branches littered the grass. Thankfully, the crown had come up short of Mrs. Higgins' rhododendrons. At least he wouldn't have to endure any awkward diplomacy there. He pulled off his gloves and wiped his brow. Then he looked for his wife.
By the time Laura returned from her shopping, Jules had showered and was relaxing in the living room with a pinot noir, listening to jazz. She hadn't bought much and carried only two little packages, but she appeared refreshed and energized.
"So," she smiled, loosening hair from the back of her collar with a girlish flip of her hand, "what did you do today?" She in fact looked radiant.
He sipped his wine. A flag of late afternoon sun had draped itself across the arm of the sofa, and he considered it. It struck him that this rectangle of sunlight had not moved during the entire time he had been sitting; a glowing edge had remained tangent to a throw pillow for what seemed like the better part of an hour. Perhaps time had paused in its infinite unreeling—planets slipped into alignment, and moons as well, as ethereal beings sat on the edges of clouds dangling their toes in cooling vapors, waiting. Or perhaps some force of will had mutated the fretwork of the future and created a possibility—hope that balanced between what is now and what is next. Jules smiled. This was exactly such a moment.
Copyright © John Riha 2006. Title graphic: "Rotted" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.