The Tree and the Bark

Blood & Bourbon, a Toronto-based literary magazine, has just published its Fall 2017 issue on the theme of “Death.” I’m proud to have my short story “The Tree and the Bark” included. The volume is available for purchase at Amazon.com. Go here for Blood & Bourbon’s web site: 

Henry watched the old man negotiate the icy sidewalk. He thought of crossing the street to help, but soon the man had made it through his gate and up a cracked walkway to his front steps.

It wasn’t the first time Henry had seen the old man. His grandmother told him he was a loner, “sharp with kids,” and Henry didn’t want to be yelled at. He’d had enough of that when his parents were alive.

The old man’s name was Jonas Blank. People said something had happened to him. A son had died, in Iraq, or so Henry had heard from his Uncle Paul. “He ain’t that old either,” said Paul. “Sixty at most. Just talks and walks old.” Paul said Blank had once been a nice guy. He would come into Paul’s gun and ammo shop and shoot the breeze. No more. Uncle Paul hadn’t talked to Blank for a decade at least, almost as long as Henry had been alive.

A twelve-year-old with no close friends and a grandmother with a two-pack-a-day habit and a weakness for whisky sours has a lot of time on his hands. Henry didn’t like computer games, and in any case his grandma’s old desktop barely ran the newest software. He spent time at the public library, and some days hung out at Paul’s. School was just school, nothing much, and sometimes he fell asleep in class because he’d had to keep watch all night for his grandmother in case she fell on her way to bed. Once when that happened he’d had to call 911 because he’d found her moaning at the bottom of the stairway and had to be taken to the emergency room.

It was an April day when Henry had his idea. He’d asked Paul to give him one of the extra gun catalogues he had laying around the store. Jonas Blank had once liked guns, so why not bring the catalogue around? Most of his days must be as stale as Henry’s, so maybe this would brighten things up for him. Paul said Blank was the saddest, loneliest man in town, and Henry understood how that must be.

He imagined it felt a little like he did two years ago when it had sunk in that his parents weren’t coming back from an auto trip they’d made out West. His mother had said they’d drive from Michigan to Oregon, camp out, do things they did when they first fell in love. His mother had said she wanted to fall in love again on the road trip. “Your dad and I need something, that’s for sure,” she’d said. Henry always wondered if that had happened. If his parents had fallen in love again.

Henry paced back and forth in his room after school. He had to work up the courage to do what he’d planned. Sharp with kids. The words had echoed through his mind most of the day. But he believed his uncle when he said, “If you believe in something, then you do it.”

Henry took a deep breath, fed his grandma’s old gray cat Charlie, and walked out of the house. He didn’t hesitate when he opened the gate to Jonas Blank’s place. Didn’t care that the rusty hinges announced his approach. He switched the thin catalogue from his right to his left hand and noticed the cover had already begun to ripple from his sweaty palm. He walked up the steps, which creaked as loudly as the front gate had. He had planned to ring the doorbell, but now wasn’t sure. He could put the catalogue in the mailbox and leave it at that. Or go back home, write a note, and then leave the catalogue.

The note would say:

Hi Mr. Blank,

I was sorry to hear about your son. I know it was a long time ago, and I think I was only about two when it happened. If you are lonely and maybe still angry, I understand. I brought you some reading from my Uncle Paul’s gun shop. Remember him?

Your neighbor,

Henry Mortinsen

Finally he decided just to ring the doorbell. No answer. He rang again, wondering how long he should wait. He knew Mr. Blank needed a little time to get around. Henry shifted from one foot to the other, the way he did on cold mornings when he waited for the school bus. Still no answer.

Henry heard the next-door neighbor’s pit bull bark, then the whine of a chain saw from a few yards over. Not a sound from Jonas Blank’s house. Henry opened the screen door and put his ear to the windowless wooden door. Nothing. He could knock, or ring again. He let out a deep breath and placed the catalogue in the rusty mailbox to the right of the door.

From the picture window of his grandmother’s house Henry checked the mailbox several times that day. Each time he saw the catalogue’s bright blue cover peeking above the mailbox lid. When night came, Henry saw a dim light in one of Blank’s upstairs rooms. It was no longer light enough to see the mailbox.

Henry walked past the gray house on the way to school the next day and smiled when he saw the catalogue was gone. He imagined Mr. Blank was reading it over breakfast. Most of the morning he thought about other things he could bring the man. By lunchtime he’d decided he wouldn’t do anything more right away. When you’ve been alone a long time and you’re angry, you may not be ready to have someone bother you with gifts or messages. You’re between the tree and the bark. You should get over your sadness, but sadness has become your close friend.

Henry waited three days, after which he firmed up an idea about what to do next. A drawing. Drawing was one of the few things Henry felt he was good at. He’d enjoyed art classes at school, but a year ago all art and music classes had been cut from the curriculum because of budget problems. Henry continued to draw on his own, and sometimes gave colored pencil drawings to his grandmother as gifts. “They’re real purdy, Hank,” she’d say from inside a haze of cigarette smoke. Then he’d find them on the floor the next morning in front of her easy chair where she often passed out for the night. Henry had decided to draw a picture of Jonas Blank’s house.

That afternoon he sat on the front steps of his grandmother’s house and studied Blank’s place. Blistered gray paint, faded burgundy window frames, a white fence in need of repair. Henry figured he could add sunlight and a brilliant blue sky and maybe even some flowers or a budding tree for more color. He didn’t want to portray the house in its present glumness, but how it might look if Mr. Blank overcame his sadness.

It took him two days to draw it, and it was ready for delivery on Saturday. He waited until after lunch. He’d washed dishes and taken out the garbage and recyclables, which usually consisted of empty bottles of Jack Daniels. The sky was a bright springtime blue, exactly as Henry had drawn it in his picture. Again Henry made his way through the complaining gate and strode up the crumbling concrete walkway to the wooden stairs. He rang the doorbell once. Then again. Still no answer.

He didn’t want to fold the picture and put it in the mailbox, which in any case was stuffed with glossy color advertisements from takeout pizzerias and payday loan joints. He decided to place it upright between the screen door and wooden door, hoping that Mr. Blank wouldn’t step on it. He rang the doorbell once more for good measure, waited for a few more minutes, then left. He looked over his shoulder as he approached the gate, hoping for a sign of Jonas Blank, but the house stood mute and alone.

*

Flashing lights illuminated the neighborhood that evening. There was a huge fire truck, Ladder Number 7, outside Blank’s house. In a few minutes, a police car drove up, then an ambulance, which after a long time backed into the gravel driveway. Henry wanted to go outside to get a better view, but his grandmother shook her head and said, “Ain’t none of our business.” So he watched from the picture window.

“It’s a stretcher, grandma,” he said after a quarter hour. “Coming from the side entrance. You think Mr. Blank’s been in an accident?”

“Could be. Old coot like that. Livin’ alone. That’s why I’m lucky to have you around, Hank.”

Henry nodded as the ambulance pulled away and the fire truck rumbled down the street. A little later the police car was gone as well. Blank’s house had returned to its normal abandoned state.

Word got around the next day that Jonas Blank had put a bullet through his head while seated at his kitchen table. A neighbor had heard the shot and walked over to investigate. Just before dinner that night, Henry crossed the street to the old gray house, opened the front screen door, and found that his drawing was gone.

*

Weeks later, well after the excitement caused in the neighborhood by the sudden death of Jonas Blank had passed, Henry had a dream. He and Mr. Blank were in the backyard of Henry’s house. His grandmother had served lemonade. Mr. Blank and Henry’s grandmother talked, but Henry couldn’t make out the words. Mr. Blank was saying something, maybe telling a joke, he was very animated, and Henry’s grandmother laughed heartily. Henry had never seen her laugh so much, not even when she was stone cold drunk. The dream recurred several times. It was always in different contexts—his grandmother’s living room, the front porch, Mr. Blank’s backyard, even the small park down the street—but the same scenario: Mr. Blank, his face and hands alive, Henry’s bubbly grandmother, and Henry, a silent, smiling witness.

Share