Taking Out the Tree
Taking Out the Tree
A Short Story
James R. Neal
It happened to be the coldest day of the year when he finally got around to dragging the tree from the house. The cold bit into his lungs as the seldom-used French doors closed behind him, sealing him out of the warmth of his living room. He paused briefly, his feet crackling in the fresh snow, to lament having waited until today to undertake this chore. Yesterday had been a beautiful day – sunny, calm, in the forties. Today the temperature was down and the wind up, but the job would wait no longer. He shifted the tree from the side of the house and stepped back at arm’s length to take in the remains of the seven-foot balsam fir that had until recently been the glory of their home. Well, perhaps not that recently. He could still hear her yelling, in that way she could yell without raising her voice, that the damn tree had to go.
They had chosen the tree together, more than five weeks back, when the first hopes of the holiday season were just beginning to dawn.
“When do you think we should get a tree?”
He asked this of his wife with some hesitation, standing in front of the French doors of their tidy four-square home one evening early in December.
“I guess you could get one any time now,” she said slowly, staring up at him from the latest catalog, which she was browsing by the fireplace. More than a week of December had come and gone with the French doors having nothing more to show than a tea table and lamp.
“Well, the neighbors have theirs up,” he said. “We’re looking a little Grinchy.”
She stood up suddenly, dropped her catalog on the coffee table and crossed the front room to stand beside him. “Well, we certainly wouldn’t want to be Grinchy, would we?” she said in an overly sweet voice. A beautiful silver and white tree stared back at them from the bay window across the street.
“The Stanleys always put up their tree early,” she said, glaring at their neighbors’ ranch-style house.
“Early?” He knew he was pushing her from grumpy to angry with this question, but “early?” They had skipped the tree lighting downtown two weeks earlier, and the stores had been displaying an orgy of all things Christmas since Halloween.
“It just seems like we’re the last ones to get our tree up this year,” he said.
There really wasn’t any denying it. Fruitcake lights were clearly visible in the front window of the brownstone on the corner. Even the sweet, racist old maid next door had preempted them this year with what looked like a horribly abused artificial tree on a coffee table.
“Well, if you want a damn tree go get a damn tree,” his wife said coldly, making her way back to her perch by the fireplace.
“Do you want to go with me? Help pick it out?”
“No, that’s your thing,” she replied. “Take the boys if you want.”
Picking out the family Christmas tree hadn’t always been “his thing.” It started out as a sacred tradition they shared, first just the two of them, later with their two sons. But, over time, the co-conspirators of convenience and familiarity eroded the tradition and turned it into a necessary errand that he performed, usually by himself, sometimes with the boys, never with his wife.
The first Saturday in December he would drive down to the hardware store on the south end of town and park in the alley, next to the diner that always smelled like overcooked cabbage. It was the closest and best place to load a tree from the hardware store without having to endure a lot of Main Street scrutiny about the technique and skill with which you tied a severed tree to the top of your car.
He would pluck one of the pungent corpses from the pile that had been dumped on the front walk between the wheelbarrows and the pallets of rock salt. Still trussed up in the white netting from some unseen tree farm, the rapidly browning evergreen would be carted home and undressed in front of the French doors for all to see. Boxes of decorations would be unpacked, cocoa warmed, and the stereo switched over to the station that played 24-hour Christmas music for a solid, mind-numbing month. The boys loved it. Children, God bless them, always love decorating a tree. They would gather together, smile at each other, and help the boys gently hang the ornaments, each one a gleaming reminder of the days when this kind of happiness didn’t have to be forced.
With all the boxes empty, all the keepsakes hung and their obligation to the boys complete, they would take a few pictures and be content it was done for another year. It was a routine that, like most routines, freed them from the exertion of having to think, or care, too much. Go to the hardware store. Bring home a tree. Help the boys decorate it. Display Christmas bliss to the neighbors. Take pictures. Done.
But, something kept him from making that obligatory trip to the hardware store. Another week passed, and still there was no tree. No ornaments. No cocoa. No pictures.
“When do you think we should get the tree,” he asked his wife, as they were clearing the dinner dishes in the dining room. She raised her eyebrows at him while slowly drying her hands with a dish towel.
“I told you a week ago, if you want a damn tree, go get one.”
“I know,” he replied softly, staring at the spot where the tree should be standing. He stood there, biting his lip, feeling the silence grow increasingly uncomfortable.
“If we’re going to get a tree, we need to get it done,” she said, finally breaking the silence. “You’ve always enjoyed getting the tree. I thought you’d have it taken care of by now.”
She had crossed the front room, and was standing in front of the French doors, still wringing her hands with the dish towel.
“I know I need to get it done,” he said, now standing beside her, looking at the multi-colored array of lights that outlined their neighbors’ houses. “The boys have been asking about it.”
“I’m sure they have,” she snapped, the words as tight as the towel she had wrung around her fists. He could see the muscles tighten in her jaw, and her lips pursed together until her mouth looked no larger than a grape. This gave way suddenly to a loud laugh. He jumped a little as she flung the towel loosely over her shoulder.
“Screw it,” she said, the sound of laughter hanging in the words. “Let’s just put a Menorah on the tea table and see what the neighbors say.”
He felt the knot in his stomach loosen somewhat as her face softened into the mischievous and playful look he had fallen in love with so long ago. He joined her in laughing. It was hard not to laugh at the thought of their fellow First Baptist Church members seeing a Menorah lit up in front of the French doors. Laughter was something they could still share.
“That certainly would get them talking,” he said.
“Well, we certainly can’t have that,” she replied, her face still soft and playful. “If I’m going to have to go with you to make sure we actually have a tree this year, then I suppose we can go together.”
She gave him a very slight smile and ran her hand along his arm as she turned and walked back to the kitchen.
Two days later it was Sunday, which meant a very deliberate family trip to church. They dressed up the boys, and made themselves out to be the happiest family in the pews of the First Baptist Church. After a very well-received sermon about secular society’s efforts to remove Christ from Christmas, they made the expected social rounds in the foyer, then settled in to the minivan for the brief ride home.
His wife stopped him short, just as he was getting ready to shift into drive to follow the line of cars leaving the parking lot.
“Do you have anything planned for today?” she asked.
“No, I hadn’t really planned anything special. I need to finish cleaning the gutters before we get a good snow, and I wanted to watch the Cowboys game.”
“Well, we don’t have a tree yet,” she said, drawing out the last word with raised eyebrows and an unblinking stare at him.
He braced himself for the smart-ass remark, or the cold sarcasm – she was equally adept at both – that would point out how delinquent he was in getting the “damn tree.” He really had no idea why he hadn’t gotten a tree yet, and he should have, but he hated it when she did this in front of the boys.
“I thought, if we didn’t have anything else going on, we could all go together and pick out a tree…if that’s okay with you.”
She said the last part in a soft and playful way that shocked him. It didn’t shock him because he’d never seen it before, but rather because it was long since forgotten. She initiated arguments. She initiated most of the decisions for their family. She initiated sex, when it happened. But she had not for a very long time been the one to initiate any kind of family outing. He became conscious he was making a very stupid face at her, with his eyebrows up and his jaw slack.
“Come on, it will be fun,” she said, gently slapping him on the shoulder. “We can make a day of it.”
She was talking softly now in a futile attempt to veil her plans from the boys, who were listening intently from the back seat, their ears tuned into their parents’ words by the mention of a Christmas tree.
“We can go down to Geno’s for lunch, get some more of the Christmas shopping done, then pick out a tree and I can make dinner at home.”
He couldn’t remember the last time they ate a pizza together at Geno’s, instead of out of the box in front of the TV. And the thought of them shopping together as a fun outing had been out of the question since their youngest was in diapers.
“Well?” she asked. “If you don’t want to do it…”
“No, no,” he said, cutting her off. “I think it’s a great idea.”
He found himself smiling at her, and she was smiling at him, and the boys were sitting perfectly still and quiet in the back.
“Thank you,” he said, and she continued to smile.
He joined the flow of traffic easing out of the First Baptist lot, and he didn’t give a damn that he was going to miss the Cowboys game.
The smiles continued for all of them that afternoon. They weren’t the smiles they showed other parents at school when asked how things were going, or the smiles they put on for the boys on special occasions. No, it was genuine happiness, easy and warm – long since forgotten for them, at least in each others’ presence. The pizza tasted better than they remembered. Shopping did not include arguments about money. Both boys beamed with glee before Santa, though the older already was beginning to trade in magic for science and marketing. They sat and held hands while the boys clambered over the playground equipment at the park. They didn’t get around to planning anything for dinner, and neither of them cared. They piled into the window booth at the Chinese buffet on Front Street and jealously devoured the happiness, all of them sensing this dish may not be served again soon.
“Thank you for today,” he said, as the boys were shoveling down bowls of soft serve ice cream from the dessert bar.
“What do you mean?” she replied with a chuckle.
“It was just…nice. I’m glad we did this together.”
“Well it was the only way to make sure it got done,” she said playfully, causing him to feel only the slightest bit defensive.
With dinner complete there remained only one task left to cap off the enigma of their blissful day. He turned the wheel south as they pulled to the edge of the parking lot – a straight shot to the hardware store, with just enough time left to claim their tree. She reached out and gently stopped him from steering the car toward the routine of the last six years.
“What do you think about going to the old tree lot?” she asked, softly holding his arm. “Do you remember going there?”
He could see a look in her eyes he had not seen since their oldest was born – an intoxicating blend of youthful glee and sensual mischief.
“Of course I remember it,” he said. He had remembered it every time he drove by the lot, and not just during the brief Christmas tree season. They had gone there less than a week after their wedding. Of course, they weren’t living behind the big French doors when they started out – just a walk-up apartment not far from the Chinese place on Front Street. But it was home. And, what’s a home at Christmas without a tree?
The hardware store trees wouldn’t do for that first Christmas. They’d gone down to the lot between the cleaner’s and the tracks. The man from Montana – they knew him as nothing more – came there the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year to transform the dirty, useless lot into a sparkling forest of overpriced dreams. He couldn’t remember where they came up with the money for that first tree, but he could feel again the excitement they shared that night so long ago, bringing home their perfect tree. It was little more than five feet tall, and probably had cost more than all the food in their cupboards, but it had been perfect.
No, the hardware store tree wouldn’t do this year at all. He smiled back at her, and with a quick reversal of the wheel they were headed to the tree lot on the north end of town.
By the time they pulled up to the lot the boys could hardly be contained in the car. They stepped out quickly, struggling to keep up with their sons. Carnival lights framed a triangular yard of glistening trees, anchored on one end by a decrepit motor home, a makeshift checkout stand and a fire burning in an old oil drum. Perched next to the fire was the man from Montana, a little older and more wrinkled than he remembered, but still the same man, waiting for them all these years.
Walking hand-in-hand they gathered before every tree on the lot, bending down to speak softly, smiling and laughing together over the soft hum of a generator somewhere nearby.
“What do you think of this one?”
“Oh, look at that one.”
“This one’s pretty, but it’s a bit bare on this side.”
“How about this one?”
“It’s pretty, but we should have a bigger one this year.”
The boys rushed from tree to tree, like terriers driven to distraction by an overabundance of squirrels. When they stopped short in front of this tree they all knew it was the one for them – symmetrical, full, sweetly fragrant, and the perfect height between stand and star to fit in their home.
“How much for this one?” he asked, beckoning to the boy the old man kept around for the heavy lifting.
His wife and sons all looked up at him expectantly when the sum was told.
“Is that going to be too much?” his wife asked softly.
“No, it will be fine.” He didn’t mind one bit paying more than twice what he would have shelled out on the other end of town.
They escorted their tree to the front of the lot, and he stood triumphant before his wife and sons, watching proudly as the old man cut a fresh end on the trunk and bound the tree in soft green netting. She stood close, smiling up at him and gently caressing his arm in the light of the old man’s fire. It made him feel strong, desired – alive.
No conquering hero ever conned a chariot through the streets of Rome with more pride than he felt that night, driving his family home with their perfect tree tied to the roof of the minivan. She stood there in the living room, one arm around each boy, absolutely glowing at him as he carefully pulled the tree through the French doors and up to its full height in the stand. When he stood up from securing the trunk to its metal roots she stood beside him, held onto his arm and gently ran her fingers through his hair.
“Thank you. It’s a beautiful tree.”
She didn’t add anything about it being about damn time, or anything else with the slightest hint of sarcasm or meanness. Just “thank you” and “it’s beautiful.” He smiled back at her and said nothing. She gently tugged on his ear lobe, just like she used to, and pulled their eyes and their lips together. The boys looked at each other, and smiled with shared hope.
None of them felt the need to lean on their tree-decorating ritual. The boys drank root beer instead of cocoa. They forgot the Christmas music. They didn’t even think to follow their normal and very logical order of precedence in applying the ornaments. The garland went on before the lights, mixed with some strands of beads from three years back. One of the boys found a box of the color-coordinated ornaments from last year, and she didn’t say a word about them clashing with this year’s selection. Each of the boys’ ornaments was hung with shared words, even laughs, about its place in their story. It was mismatched. It was uneven. The colors clashed. And it was the most beautiful Christmas tree any of them had ever seen.
He still could see the pictures they’d taken in front of the tree, moments after they had declared its glory to the world. The cast of rigid poses and forced happiness had been chased from the house by an unruly foursome, all giggles and smiles. Half the pictures were blurry, a waving arm or pitching head forever in motion. Most of the others captured an errant look, a wild face, or one of the boys trying to poke, pull or pummel his brother.
The best picture, his absolute favorite, was one he would normally have deleted. The boys were laughing with wide open mouths, trying to push each other off the piano bench, their legs splayed at wild angles, their hands pushing each others’ faces. They were standing behind the boys, in front of their tree, waiting for the timer on the camera to expire. He was glancing down, smiling at his sons, remembering when he used to wrestle with his big brother. She was looking at him with a soft smile – just looking at him, exactly the way she had the day their oldest was born.
Eventually the boys fell asleep between them on the couch, with a must-see black-and-white movie still unseen. He carried his youngest up the stairs, remembering how small and fragile he had seemed not so long ago. She joined him to tuck the boys into bed, a nightly ritual long-since abandoned. They took turns, each gently brushing the hair off a smooth forehead, bending down to kiss a sleeping face, feeling the gentle rise and fall of life beneath their hand.
“When did we stop doing this?” he asked himself. “Why don’t we still sit together and read them stories? Why do you cry when you make their breakfast?” There were a thousand more questions he couldn’t form into conscious thought, no more than he could put them into words to his wife.
They walked down the stairs together, and for no stated purpose sat down on the carpet in front of the tree. They didn’t talk. They just sat, and looked, and felt each others’ hearts beating in a faintly familiar way. She laid her head on his chest, her hair smelling of lavender, her breath falling in time with his. She got up, briefly, to draw the heavy drapes across the French doors. She said she loved him. He loved her. So they made love, softly, then fiercely, beneath the Christmas lights.
For the next several weeks he remembered that night every time he walked past the tree – making love to his wife, cherishing their sons, smiling and laughing. The memory, at first, made him giddy. He would gaze at the tree every chance he could, just for a taste of that night. Days slid into weeks, and the memory came with warmth, then fondness, and finally, anxious longing. By the time the shopping was done and the presents wrapped that night had faded, and she was beginning to complain of the dropping needles.
Christmas came as it usually does – in a swirl of credit card receipts, shredded wrapping paper and gifts that would be forgotten by Valentine’s. The fete for the coming of the Messiah ended with several bags of afterbirth being carried to the dumpster in the alley. He paused that night before pulling the plug to the tree, sensing a finality he was not yet ready to accept.
“You were a good tree,” he said, knowing she was out of earshot, reading a magazine in bed. “You still are.”
He reached out and ran his fingers along several of the boys’ ornaments, wishing he could pick them up in his arms to hang the ornaments anew. But, he couldn’t. It was done. And with a sigh he bent down and wrenched the plug from its socket.
Sadness hung about the tree’s branches the next day, like the masts of a ship that had weathered a great storm, only to be moored at the breaking yard.
“I’m about ready to take the tree down,” she announced, less than 24 hours after they had opened the presents. “I just think it would be nice to get the house back to normal earlier this year,” she continued, in response to his complete silence on the matter.
He resisted as best he could, obliging her command that he at least clean up the needles if she couldn’t take it down. Each day he would sweep up the needles that had fallen in a perfect ring about the tree. Each day there were more needles than the day before. He knew the end was near when he returned home from work to see the ornament boxes had descended from the attic, and were piled about the tree where the gifts had once rested.
“It’d be better to get this done before the boys come home from my mom’s, don’t you think?”
He mumbled something incoherent in response and picked up one of the boxes that would carry their Christmas memories back to the recesses of the attic. They remained silent while they stripped the tree and carefully packed each ornament into the box, each passing moment of silence making it harder to find the right thing to say. There were tears in her eyes as she picked up the boxes of ornaments and turned to walk away. He wanted desperately to grab her. To hold her. To shake her. To tell her he loved her. That he hated her. To yell at her. To whisper softly in her ear. To do anything. But he remained frozen, silent and alone, standing next to the naked corpse of their tree.
The tree stood like that for the better part of a week, held firmly in place by his procrastination. He knew it was time for the tree to go. There’s really no argument to be made in favor of having a dead fir tree in your living room once the ornaments have been packed away. Still, a perfectly sound reason managed to present itself each day to avoid removing the tree. She remained perfectly quiet about it for four solid days, perhaps forgetting he was and always had been completely oblivious to passive aggression. He was content to give the tree an ever-widening berth, and to see it as it had been, all the while planning to cart it off at the first chance.
Eventually turned to immediately when he walked in the door after work.
“Good. You’re home.” Her tone was colder than the snow that was freshening outside.
The storm provided a perfectly reasonable excuse to grant the tree one more reprieve. But she was done with it. He could see that plainly on her face. She was standing there in the middle of the living room, blocking the path of least resistance. Hands on hips, lips firmly pursed, her left eyebrow raised – never a good sign, he knew – she was alternating between glaring at him and glancing at the tree.
“Don’t take your coat off. You need to get that tree out of my living room before the snow sets in and we’re stuck with the damn thing for another week.”
There was nothing more to do. He halfway threw up his hands, then set about the task of removing the desiccated corpse from the living room. By the time he loosened the bolts on the tree stand and cleared the path to the French doors she was standing there, broom and dust pan in hand, ready to sweep them both out into the cold. The doors were swung open, letting in big, fluffy snowflakes that instantly melted on the hardwood, leaving perfect rings of water on the floor and a deepening grimace on her face.
“You see, it’s frigging stupid to try to remove a seven-foot tree through a six-foot hole in the damned house in the middle of a snow storm.” He wanted badly to say that out loud, but he thought better of it. He settled the tree in the thickening snow and balanced it against the side of the house, still reluctant to let it fall to the ground. He quickly followed, and felt the doors close firmly behind him.
So, there he was, standing in the snow, holding up a dead tree in front of his house. One of his curious and overly helpful neighbors slowed in the street to cast a smirk at the next day’s lead story for the coffee shop.
“Hello jackass. Keep moving.” He said this while holding up the tree with one hand and waving politely with the other.
Twilight was dimming, and he knew it would be dark before he made it to the old family farm, long since leased out to someone else’s family. They kept the burn pile there, next to the hulk of an old International pickup he had once thought to restore. He had known since the last gift was unwrapped there was no destination for the tree but the burn pile, and now there was no more delaying the trip.
Had he been planning ahead he would have started the old pickup before he began uprooting the tree, but apparently planning ahead was not going to be his strong suit in this task. He briefly considered tying the tree to the top of the minivan, and carrying it out the way it had come home with them on that warm, happy day in December. That would certainly give the Main Streeters something more to talk about. No, it would have to be the pickup. He carried the tree to the bed, set the trunk on the ground and spun it slowly, scanning the branches for the glimmer in the failing light of any forgotten ornaments. Satisfied, he gently placed it in the bed next to a rusting tool box and several lengths of two-by-four he was sure he would need some day.
As he slid into the worn-out driver’s seat he said a quick prayer that the old beast would start. She didn’t like the cold much, but she was a good truck, and certainly did not owe anything to him or anyone else. It had been his grandfather’s last pickup, and his first. It was always a source of silent disappointment with his grandfather that he drove a minivan, and didn’t even have the God-given sense to own a truck. Granddad corrected in death what he couldn’t teach in life, and left him the pickup in his will.
He had grown to love the truck, and not just for its connection to the gray-haired man who had always looked on him with a mix of curiosity and concern. He loved the feel of the wheel in his hands, the rumble of the wheels on pavement, the worn-out feel of the seat and floor mats that bore the mark of many years’ worth of hard work. The pungent blend of sweat, oil and cigarette smoke – how he would always remember granddad – had faded into a musty indiscriminate smell.
He pushed the key into the ignition and pulled the choke fully out, then thought he had better put a tie-down over the tree. Granddad had always known instinctively which loads needed to be tied down, and which would stay put in the bed of a pickup of their own accord. He was not as well versed in this art, but it was too damn cold to mess with the strap.
“No, we can make it,” he said to the old truck. “We’ll just go slow. You can start for me now, can’t you?”
He turned the key and was rewarded with the engine not only turning over, but catching on the first try. He eased his foot onto the gas pedal, immediately realized he had pushed too hard, and felt his heart sink as the engine coughed and quit. A small triangle of light snapped open in the living room window, and closed just as suddenly as the drapes were let fall.
“Dammit.” He felt more than saw her glaring at him from the living room. He ran his hand across the top of the wheel, willing the old truck to life.
“Come on baby, don’t do this to me. Not now.”
He again turned the key. This time he managed to time the gas just right and the engine roared, perceptibly tilting the truck with the torque. Maybe just a little too much gas. He didn’t bother to see if the drapes had opened again, telling himself he didn’t care. He eased in the choke and backed the pickup out into the street, now covered in a thin layer of snow. The snowflakes were getting noticeably larger in the oncoming headlights as he came to a stop at the end of their street, then turned left to cover the full length of the town and a bit more – all of three miles – to the old farm.
“We’re just going to go slow now, and I don’t want you taking me into the damn ditch. You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
The 390 engine continued its hearty rumble, oblivious and reliable.
None of the other drivers seemed as worried about the dusting of snow on the pavement, and one came uncomfortably close to his rear bumper before gunning the engine and passing him. Gradually, he increased his speed to the point he no longer felt like a hindrance to Main Street progress. He began to relax, eased his grip on the wheel and settled into the seat to enjoy the brief drive.
He was past the hardware store now, and just coming to the developed edge of town, not far from where he would be able to see the red reflectors his grandfather had long ago placed by the cattle guard at the entrance to the old homestead. With the snow thickening, he knew he wouldn’t be able to see the entrance until he was almost on top of it. He wondered what his grandfather would say if he saw him now, hauling off a dead tree in the middle of the year’s worst snow storm.
“Damned fool. Why the hell did you wait until now to do this? Be a man. One day you’re going to have to learn to stand up to your wife.”
No, he wouldn’t have said any of that. He would have just stood there, a Pall Mall balanced on his fingers, and shook his head in tight-lipped disappointment.
He squinted into the night, waiting to discern the red markers from the gray and white scene illuminated by his headlights. A gust of wind swept across the road, blowing snow sideways and perceptibly impacting the truck. There was a brief scratching sound – just an instant – and his gut tightened and eyes widened just in time to watch in the mirror as the old Christmas tree exited the bed of the pickup over the tailgate. It hung there for an unbelievable amount of time, suspended upside down in midair behind the pickup, perfectly silhouetted by following headlights, then disappeared from sight and crashed onto the road.
He stood on the brake pedal while screaming at least two obscenities that blended together in an indiscernible primal sound, felt the pickup begin to slide, eased off the brakes and then brought it to a stop on the side of the road.
“Gaaawwwdammmmitt!” he screamed, regaining the powers of speech.
The following pickup slowed and came to a stop just short of where the shattered tree now lay, casting its headlights on the scene. He knew it was possible they had stopped out of caution, or to be helpful, but most likely they were just there to watch what would happen next.
“Just go around, dammit,” he said through gritted teeth as he slammed the heavy driver’s door and walked back towards his stricken cargo.
“Just go on you useless bastard,” he added under his breath. But, they would not be robbed of watching him gather what was left of his Christmas tree.
The needles he had worked so diligently to preserve now littered the snow in a ragged halo around the tree’s dry bones. He flopped a gloved hand at the headlights that now nearly blinded him, then bent down and plucked the tree from the road. It seemed obscenely light as he carried it one-handed to the pickup and placed it, not so gently now, back in the bed. The spectators, with nothing curious or amusing left to behold, drove on, leaving him standing in the dark save for the gray cones of his own headlights.
He made his way back to the drivers seat and let the darkness envelope him, watching the interlopers’ taillights fade into the night. The urge to slam his fist into the dashboard began as a cold knife in his gut, then shuddered through his neck and shoulders, down into his arms where it ended in a painful grip on the steering wheel. He forced several breaths out through his nose, then felt the rage pass from him through quivering lips just as quickly as it had risen.
“Well, I pretty well screw up everything, don’t I?” He had no answer for himself. He swallowed the familiar taste of bile, slowly shifted the pickup into drive and headed down the last hundred yards of road to the familiar cattle guard. There was nothing ceremonious about his brief stop beside the burn pile. The snow was gathering fast and he knew the old pickup would become uncomfortably skittish on the drive home. He pulled the tree from the bed, held it up briefly laid across his palms, then let it drop onto the pile between fencing scraps and discarded maple limbs.
“You were a good tree.”
He wanted to stare up at the stars and talk to God, but all he could see was darkness and the cold gray undulating mass of snow descending to earth. All he could hear was wind. He turned his back on the tree and pointed the pickup home, driving slower than was necessary, even in a storm that was gathering strength and growing colder.
It was a hot July afternoon the next time he saw the old farm in the light of day. He had been there only once more in the interval since he dropped the tree on its pyre, on a clear March night not long after he moved out of the house. He came there that night to deliver several boxes of pictures, old love letters, and eight years’ worth of unbreakable promises onto the burn pile. The dried out remains of the Christmas tree had blown clear of the pile in the winter wind, and hung in the barbed wire of the south pasture looking in the headlights very much like a picture he had once seen of a dead soldier. He pulled the tree from the fence and packed it back into the burn pile with his memories, then weighed it all down with some old timbers to keep the wind from disturbing what was meant to burn as one. He saw the smoke from the road one afternoon later that spring, when the farmer had moved his cattle off the wheat and decided to make way for the downed limbs and broken fencing that would inevitably come with another year of storms.
There was little left to see of the burn pile that afternoon when he stepped out of the pickup. What had grown to a jumbled mass the size of a small house was now a ring of white ash and black char, dominated in the center by a scarred tree stump and the metal rim of a bicycle tire that had refused to succumb to the flames. Thistles and rye were beginning to intrude on the ring of ash, and a Kingbird paused on the old tree stump before flitting off into the sky and out of sight.
He had come to gather an old milk crate full of tools he had left in the International. The crate went into the pickup, requiring some old scrap wood and a rusted length of chain be moved to make a flat surface in the bed. From beneath the rusted iron and the rotting wood a faint golden glint caught his eye. He balanced the crate on the side of the bed, and carefully pulled a small forgotten angel from the chain.
He remembered the ornament well. It was one of the oddballs – it wasn’t part of a set, and had no particular back story. The boys had agreed to hang it at the top of the tree, so it could be near the large angel with the flowing robes. Its red ribbon was now nearly black with grease and rust, but the metal still shone bright and the trumpet still pointed upward. With his errand complete he swung himself into the pickup and paused to clean the angel on his shirt sleeve.
“Well, it’s going to be a long ride. But, you can come along if you want.”
He started to place the angel in the glove box, but stopped to stare at her briefly in the palm of his hand. There was still a good gleam about her, underneath the grime, so he hung her from the rear-view mirror, shifted the truck into gear and settled himself in the driver’s seat. It seemed strange to have a Christmas angel hanging in a pickup in July. But he knew, eventually, he would be ready for a fresh tree.
In this short story by James Neal the simple chore of taking out the Christmas Tree highlights the dynamics of a marriage on the verge of collapse. A young family finds happiness while picking out their special tree, only to find their happiness fades as the tree withers. A new beginning must be forged after the decorations are packed away and the tree is hauled from the house.