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Writer's Block December 1, 2000
Takes some time to learn things about your wife
by C.B. Mosher
For forty-five minutes I've been sitting here in the yard, scouring the inside of my head for inspiration while my wife's dead grandfather has been staring at me. The weak winter sun which slants over my shoulder onto these blank pages has also been illuminating his branches and trunk. Chinese elm, that's what he is: Ulmus parvifolia. I looked it up once.
You'd think that situation would make for a one-way kind of social intercourse. I would have, until last summer. The night of July 10th, under a hot and sticky full moon, altered that assumption - and a couple of assumptions about my marriage - abruptly and forever.
So I'll write about how I fell for her. How I loved her in that late-adolescent, proto-adult kind of way: loved her breasts, loved her thighs, loved her munchious little ear lobes. She agreed that pizza was real food, and like I, read Ferlinghetti aloud. She promised I'd be her 'one and only guy.' Marriage was going to be easy and fun.
She had an inheritance: thirty-five acres of woods, streams, and their attendant fauna, undulating over rolling hills. Her grandfather had left the place to her upon his death, years before we'd met. She spoke of it like a shrine. At one time or another, Alexis told me of swings fashioned from limbs twenty feet in the air, where she'd arced away her girlhood summer days. Of her playhouse, Hansel and Gretel style with blue gingerbread on brown siding, a Dutch door, and real stained glass. She'd hinted at hidden tree houses.
For the five years after his death she was always careful to pay the taxes on the place a month before they were due, yet she kept the gate locked and no one, not even she, set foot on the land.
But there was plenty to keep us busy in the city. We met in the city. We dated in the city. And there we held a wedding ceremony. Then we sequestered ourselves in a tiny one bedroom apartment and embarked on a thorough exploration of each other. We only ventured out, reluctantly, for work and quick shopping trips. We never wore clothes when we were home.
Like any explorers, we eventually reached the pinnacle and began to look around.
'There are a lot of people out there,' I observed one Sunday morning as I stared out the window.
'Really?' she purred from behind me. 'What are they doing outdoors on a nice day like this?'
And that's pretty much when we started doing the social thing again. We threw in dinner and movies with the shopping trips. We put clothes on and had people over. And when we talked later about what we'd seen and heard, we thought it was strange how differently we'd experienced the same events. But we just laughed about that.
After dinner one Thursday, we went for a walk. At the bottom of the steps, we turned by habit onto the sidewalk in the direction of work, shopping, and everything else.
'We always go left,' I said, swooping her by the elbow in a U-turn. 'Let's go the other way.'
So we walked beyond our apartment building, up the street, past more apartment buildings. I felt my arm suddenly jerked from her elbow. She had stopped in mid-stride to stare at a tree.
'Alex?' I probed gently. She didn't respond. 'Alex?'
She remained silent, mesmerized. I looked at her face. Her eyes roamed the tree; her mouth puckered a little, inquisitive. The thing was old, twisted, and jagged with fractured limbs. I watched as her expression flowed into reflective, then dreamily nostalgic.
The next weekend, we opened Grandpa's house.
Spiders and mice were evicted. Dust was disturbed in great coughing clouds. Large weeds and small bushes flew like shrapnel before my flailing armory of brand new garden tools.
The first week we finished the days with me rubbing her sore muscles. The second week, with her treating the blisters on my hands. The third week we just collapsed into comas after dinner, having never touched.
Finally, we were a married couple.
One always-out-in-the-yard-working Saturday afternoon, I propped a bag of fertilizer against a young tree, then leaned against the same tree to snap open a beer can. She came screaming from the house like a kamikaze. She hit me, grabbed my shirtfront, and whirled me off the tree into a heap five feet from it. With a continuous motion, she grabbed the fertilizer and staggered backward with it, powered by some raging flood storm, until she collapsed, sobbing, fifteen feet from the three-inch diameter trunk.
'Jesus, Alex! Are you nuts?'
'You'll hurt him,' she sobbed. 'Don't ever hurt him!' Her words gargled in her tear-flooded throat from where she sprawled on the ground, clutching the fertilizer.
'Huh?' or something equally eloquent, I said from my own sprawled position.
'Grandpa,' she shouted. Then, much softer, she whimpered 'Grandpa,' pointing at the tree. Between sobs and heaving, she continued in disjointed clumps: 'He found a way... a way to... he loved this place so much... he got himself buried in a flimsy pine box, with a baby tree planted over him. And now his -'
In place of words she motioned with her hands, indicating how that which was below the ground would flow up the trunk and umbrella out over the spot.
'Juices' came to mind, but I suppressed saying it aloud. 'Molecules,' I thought further. 'Eventually, atoms -' atoms reprocessed to become the tree itself.
The thought of it turned my stomach and I scooted backward, away from the tree. When, finally, Alexis quieted down enough that I felt I could approach her, I rearranged the fertilizer bag, sat her down on it next to me, and hugged her in silence for a while.
'So, O.K. I can treat the tree like a cemetery plot. But still, that was a pretty violent reaction, Alex.'
I phrased it like a question.
As if to answer, she took my hand and pulled me up a hill behind the house, into the woods. In a clearing, on a little knob, was an old gnarled oak. It resembled the tree she'd stared at in the city. A swing hung from a high branch, as thick as most trunks. The plank seat moved in a slow motion dance with the breeze.
She sat on it.
'Push me,' she begged in a squeaking little-girl voice I'd never heard before.
I ran my eyes over the ropes, to be sure they would hold her. I pushed gently.
'No, no, no,' she shook her head in rhythm to her words. 'Pull me way-y-y back, then push me and run under.' She stretched her legs way out in front of her, pointed her toes, then flitted them back and forth like a ballerina's cabriole. Beyond her toes was a vast expanse of nothing: the knoll fell off into a broad valley which didn't end until a ridge of trees formed the horizon at least a mile away.
She's a mature woman, I had to remind myself, responsible for her own safety. I grabbed the ropes, walked backward up the knoll pulling her with me, until the ropes went slack and she had to curl her legs under the seat to keep from dragging on the ground. I paused, then leaned forward. By the end of the first step, gravity had me running, pushing her before me. The ground fell away from my feet as the swing rose above my shoulders, then over my head. I gave a final push, and cascaded head first down the hill into a rolling heap.
Her feet brushed by my hair, and her scream launched for the distant ridge. I looked up.
Against the blue she arced. She laid herself out flat, from pointed toes to bent-back head. Her hair and her skirt fluttered - out toward the valley as she swung backward, then out behind the swing as she soared over the open space, fifteen feet from the ground. I admired yet again the beauty of her legs.
I had to push her twice more, then she was ready to talk. She sat in the swing and twisted the ropes, twirling slowly clockwise, then counterclockwise as she talked.
'You're a good pusher. Just like Grandpa.'
Unsure how to handle the Grandpa topic, I just smiled.
'After my folks divorced, they tried to tug-of-war me over the summer vacation, you know, custody thing. Back and forth. Whispering nasty things about each other in my ears. I didn't want to hear that kind of stuff, about either of them. At the same time, I hated them both.'
'How old -?'
'Eleven,' she cut me off. 'I was just eleven and they had to do that. Couldn't wait a few years until I was gone.
'The last day of school, seventh grade, I just disappeared. Wasn't gonna spend another summer like the last. I ran and hid. I hoped she'd go nuts when I wasn't on the bus. I hoped she'd call the police. I hoped, really, she'd call Dad.'
'They finally found me. Pried the door off and shined a light in.'
'Equipment room, boy's lockers.'
'Tell me about it. But it broke my heart 'cause neither Mom nor Dad was with the police. It was Grandpa. He took me for a milkshake and made me talk. He listened. He nodded. He bought me another milkshake. And, in the end, that's when I started spending summers here. Neutral territory, I suppose. Seemed to be OK with Mom and Dad - they each had their own new fucks. Didn't seem to need me.'
Her words fluttered as she spun violently from a tight wind-up, making her cheeks wobble. She giggled, then smiled for a long time.
'Mostly he listened, but the third summer, I felt so comfortable with him, I asked about his wife - Mom's mom. I'd never met her. Grandpa said she was the prettiest lady around, and some of the neighbor ladies didn't like her. He said he liked her well enough. But he also said one thing which I think was more than he wanted to say:
' 'She was mostly good, but hurt me a lot over little things - other men. I was mostly good, too, but I hurt her once - bad. I didn't never hurt her like that again,' he told me, 'and I won't never let nobody hurt you.' '
That afternoon she showed me her playhouse and her favorite little waterfall in her 'secret place' - 'not even Grandpa knows about this place.' All three inches of cascade. I asked about the tree houses but her eyes just twinkled, she said those were 'forever secrets' and she took me by the hand back to our bed.
The evening cicadas were deafening. Their noise woke us up from our entwined post-coital slumber. Sticky sweat had plastered our bellies together. An owl screeched to make the little hairs prickle your neck.
As she was ungluing her front from my front, skin pulling to the stretching point, she said:
'You cook dinner. I'm tired.'
'Hey, it's evening - my writing time. You take care of dinner as usual, and I'll do breakfast tomorrow, OK?' I moved toward her to give her a hug.
She backed away. 'I'm always stuck fixing dinner alone while you write.' The vehemence she put into these words was so uncharacteristic that all my muscles tensed at once. 'Is this writing going to be your excuse to get out of everything?'
'But, Alex -'
I was going to point out all the work I'd done on the place over the past weeks, but she just kept talking right over me. 'And has this writing ever brought us one red cent?' She crossed her arms, and turned her back to me.
My lips began to tremble. This was betrayal - revealed disdain for that delicate secret hope I'd nurtured for years, mostly in silence. The hope I'd revealed to her - and only her - trusting she'd know what it meant to me.
'Alex, what's going on here?' I moved around to find her eyes. But she twisted her head, then her body, to keep me behind her.
'And will this writing also be your excuse to ignore me?' she spewed toward the wall.
'Ignore you? Do I look like I'm ignoring you?' I was shaking. 'Look at me!' She kept her back to me, the elbows of her crossed arms protruding like spikes on either side.
'Alex, you promised to respect my writing time. What's going on?' I held out my hands, vibrating with growing rage. 'My god, I can't write in this condition.'
I heard her snort derisively. 'Good,' she spat.
All my muscles were tight and trembling, my hands contracted into clenched fists. I jumped around to face her.
'Alex, look at me when I'm talking,' I pleaded through clenched teeth. I glimpsed disdain on her face in the instant before she turned away again.
'Writing,' she sneered. 'What a joke!' The harsh sound of this last word was like a whip snapping.
I grabbed her shoulder to twist her around. 'Alex, look at me!'
She yanked away and ran from the house, screaming.
I streaked after her, barefoot, naked, thighs sticking. I found her in the moonlight, clinging to the skinny-trunked Grandpa tree. The vision is comical now - she wrapped around a trunk you could encompass with hands alone, seeking the protection of a burly Grandfather in the form of a snapable sapling. But it wasn't funny that night.
'Stay away!' she screamed, moving to put the tree between us. It hid nothing of her, not even her belly button.
When I saw her fear, I stopped.
'Alex, for Christ's sake, it's me. You aren't frightened of me.'
But the whites of her eyes grew bigger still. The full moon spotlighted them as if to call the whole forest's attention to my crime. I swirled with guilt, but tried not to succumb to it. I swirled with anger, but tried not to release it.
'Alex, I'm sorry, but it really hurt me when you belittled my writing. You've never done that before. What's going on?'
I edged toward her a little.
'Stay away,' she whimpered. She backed away, but wouldn't release the tree.
I shook my head at the absurdity. 'This is irrational,' I muttered. 'Absolutely irrational behavior.' I tried to stare into her eyes, but I saw a red mark on her shoulder and had to look away. My heart tumbled within a whirlpool of guilt.
Then my skin began to crawl. I felt the nearness of high voltage like you do when things polarize in a storm, just before the lightning discharges. Something scraped slowly down my back, like a talon. Terror gripped me. I froze. Another scraping down my neck. There was a fluttering behind me, like devil-wings. I held my breath and squeezed my eyes shut.
Then, there was a flurry of a dozen more sharp edges scraping at my body, their wings beating as they clawed on me. Through my closed eyelids, I saw moonlight flash from them as they swarmed down around me. I felt urine run hot down my left leg.
Then its familiarity suddenly hit me: leaves. I opened my eyes to see just that - a fusillade of Autumnal leaves, small and pointy, some of them stuck to my skin, many still airborne. They dropped from the tree's branches which arched out over Alexis, protecting her as she trembled there. The sterile light of the moon silvered each branch, like a network of charged electric wires. I didn't dare take another step toward them. I feared a flash and a bolt. Things remained frozen, charged, on the brink.
Eventually, I took a step back.
I backed away, over to the house, and sat on the stoop.
I waited for her.
It took a half-hour or so. I heard tears and whispers over there. The cicadas buzzed on. The owl screeched again. But they just talked it over until Alex was ready, and he sent her back to me.
We sat next to each other, alone for a minute with just our tears. Then someone - I don't remember now who - reached out, and we hugged and cried.
Eventually, our emotions vented somewhat, we sat holding hands, our sweaty skin sticking to the wooden stoop, looking at Grandpa.
'Mom called herself a writer, too,' she whispered.
'Mom, can we play dolls?
' 'Not now. I have to write.'
'Mom, will you come to Back-to-School night?
' 'Can't. Have to write.'
'That's why she wanted the divorce. She was writing the day I locked myself in at school. That's why she sent Grandpa after me.'
I squeezed her hand. 'I didn't cause your parents' divorce, Alex. Besides, you've always known,' I puzzled, 'how important writing is to me.'
'Yeah. I guess I knew all that, but it just hit me today.'
'I'm sorry I hurt you, Alex,' I said, picking a stray leaf off her thigh.
'Didn't hurt me,' she responded. 'Scared me. I didn't know I could trigger that kind of response from you. Guess I found a touchy point, huh?'
She nodded toward the tree. 'I always thought you'd be just like him,' she said softly. 'And that's the way it felt for a while this afternoon. Until you mentioned writing.'
'Alex, I promise I'll always be just like me.'
She turned her eyes toward me and gave me a little-girl grin.
'Your one and only guy,' I reminded her.
'I'll have to remember that,' she chirped.
She started dinner. I went upstairs and pulled out the gardening book. Beyond the window I saw the tree, clearly lit in colorless moonlight, now bare of leaves. The book says U. parvifolia is an evergreen in some climates, never losing its leaves, deciduous in others, losing its leaves only when temperatures fall to single digits.
The July air was like steam.
I put on a pair of shorts and came into the kitchen. She was standing at the stove, still naked, stirring something. Her hips swayed gracefully in rhythm with the spoon. The attraction I felt for her had not changed. But something had. I took the wooden spoon gently from her hand, very careful to smile directly into her eyes.
'I'll cook,' I said. 'You can put clothes on, if you want to. I'll write some other time.'
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