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Tree People.

AT THE SUMMER'S END, Alone woman moved into the old tree outside of my kitchen window. The tree's generous limbs relented at its center and formed a cradle large enough to house a single person and her things. The woman built a platform using a plywood square cut to accommodate the branches, and she lifted up provisions with a pulley system made of ropes and a discarded paint bucket. Beginning her first week, local activists arranged a schedule to deliver a steady supply of canned goods, water, and batteries in order to demonstrate their support for her cause, which was to save the tree. I imagined the woman was probably lonely in the tree, and when I thought about the logistics of what she faced--limited square footage, lack of plumbing, gravity's constant threat--her feat seemed impossible or remarkable. I stirred a pot of rice at my kitchen stove and felt sorry for her. I wondered if someday a fellow supporter or tree man would scale the bark to join her. Late at night, there often shone the single beam of a book lamp or a flashlight in the dark. I was alone again.

My landlord, Debbie, wanted to tear down the tree, gut my apartment complex, and replace my fixtures and floors with stainless steel and reclaimed wood. Surveyors from the city inspected the area and staked colored flags into my lawn for future electrical lines. Some of the other tenants vacated early, and my landlord led potential investors on tours of the half-empty building, knocking on my door many afternoons to showcase my westerly view. We lived in a part of Lawrence, Kansas that was being remade, and in the hands of men like these, buildings like mine would transform into clean condos with manicured lawns.

"Where do you expect us to go?" I asked a crowd of investors gathered on my stoop one Monday.

"Find another place to live," said one of the men, checking his elaborate watch.

"We can't help you," another one said, and they turned away from me.

I DIDN'T KNOW FROM WHERE the tree woman had come, only that she arrived at the beginning of fall. Lee hadn't left me yet, but he soon would. The leaves on the tree were richly colored an abundant green; they would never be that color again. She came at the news that the city would tear down the trees that lined our neighborhood's sidewalks in order to import a rare Chinese variety with decorative pink blossoms. She had chosen this tree alone due to its historic significance: Quantrill had burned down our Kansas town in the nineteenth century--the hotel, the schools, the horse-shoe shop--to protest the city's abolitionist leanings, and this tree alone had survived.

A local news crew had once come to do a story on the tree woman. She responded to questions by speaking loudly from up in the limbs, and, when asked to give a final statement, provided a bold soliloquy on historicity and freedom. "That's a woman who knows what she wants," Lee said before he flipped the channel to sports.

We both knew I was not a woman like that. Some months before, we had decided to paint the apartment, and we had gone to select swatches at the hardware store. "Pick your poison," Lee had said and waved to all the colors on the painting department wall, but I couldn't decide on a single color. We tried lime-green, twilight, and a brown color called "fawn" that was soft and dull like a deer. Lee painted test squares from sample cans onto the wall--patient Lee, tireless Lee--and then he smiled and said, "You choose." I loved that smile, but I couldn't pick for fear that I would make the wrong choice, and then I would be surrounded on all sides by the evidence. Lee painted more test squares, "barley harvest" and "baby dreams," each color a future I couldn't fulfill. "Choose," he said, but I was frozen, and our wall remained as a color wheel and a reminder of what I couldn't do.

The day Lee moved out, I stood above him while he placed his dog-eared 800-page history of World War II on top of the folded clothes in his suitcase. "Tell me not to go," he said, but I couldn't say it. "Tell me to stay," he said. I wanted to tell him, but instead, I remained silent as he carried a final round of boxes to the car. I looked down at him from the kitchen window, and I thought about flinging it open and saying, "Stay," but the word sounded so final and so fatal in that way. At some point, the tree woman mouthed something to me from the other side of the windowpane, either "No" or "Go."

"What?" I said and I pulled open the window to better hear her, but Lee had already closed the door to his car and started its reluctant engine.

That evening, I threw away all trace of him: forgotten laundry, our photographs, his strawberry jam. A coworker from the library called to invite me to a barbeque, but I let the machine pick up, because I didn't want to tell anyone Lee had left in case he decided to come back. I opened the windows, threw bleach on all the floors, and scrubbed it clean. I had a system owing to the fact that I had been through this before. Before Lee I had lived with a man named Rob who had proposed to me. The proposal hadn't felt right, though: the blender pulsed furiously at a chimichurri in our cramped kitchen, grinding at garlic while Rob descended to his knee, so I said, "Let's try this again some other time." We tried again in a restaurant where the ring was hidden in a tart and emerged with its grooves caked with chocolate innards.

I was resting in my spotless living room as shadows overtook the walls when the phone rang. "Tell me to come back," Lee said when I picked up. "Fine," he said, "at least admit we have a chance." I was silent on the line, and after a few moments he told me he planned to drive back to his mother's house in Nebraska the next morning. Afterwards, I couldn't sleep, and outside I heard the tree woman rustle the branches. The sounds of her life were indistinguishable from the animals and insects, all of them prone to the whims of the weather and the endless loops of the moon and sun.

THE NEXT DAY I WOKE to a loud voice outside my window. "You're totally insane!" a man yelled from the front lawn. I came to the window and found a small group circling the trunk and looking up into its branches. One woman wore a fanny pack and one man appeared to have just finished a jog. I recognized them as the members of a newly formed neighborhood association, each with a highly intentional haircut. "This is our town, and we want progress!" the jogger yelled.

"You're being completely unreasonable," the tree woman said. Her voice remained measured and calm. "We can go forward without destroying what we already have."

"We need this plot!" said the jogger, who appeared to be leading the effort. He launched a stick into the tree, followed by several small stones. The others joined him, and they all threw whatever they could find on the ground at the woman. A very large rock sat at the base of the tree a few feet from the jogger.

"Hey!" the tree woman yelled. "Stop that!"

The truth is, I didn't care about the tree, not truly. They could have torn down that tree and every other tree, and I wouldn't have complained if they had left me alone. Each tree seemed to have an identical cylindrical trunk topped with scraggly brush, and I was generally unmoved by nature or historical fact. I had never even climbed a tree, and in grade school I had let other kids scale the trunks while I remained securely on the ground. But now, from my window, I found in the tree woman's face a familiar look of panic and indecision. In my mind's eye, her features bore a striking resemblance to my own, although in reality we looked nothing alike. The angles of her face were softer, and her hair was a shade like "barley harvest."

"Hey you, bastards!" I yelled out the window, surprising myself with the boom of my voice. "Leave her alone!" I picked up a brick that I used to prop open my kitchen door and I lifted it high above my head.

"Brick!" the jogger yelled. They appraised each other and me for a moment, and then they set down their stones and retreated slowly toward their cars. They hurtled insults out of their car windows as they drove away in a caravan. I sat at my window for a while to make sure they were gone for good, and with my brick, I guarded the woman and the tree.

I FELL ASLEEP IN MY chair, and when I woke it was late afternoon. A breeze grazed my cheek, and the sky was a half-hearted blue. The phone rang and the machine picked up, but I ignored the message. The day faded into orange, then burnt orange, then red, and the tree leaves shimmered as if wet. I made two tuna melts and took them outside to the tree where I called up. "Hey, tree woman!" I said. "Are you okay?"

"That's not my name." She peeked her head over the platform, and long strands of hair fell around her face.

"That's not the point," I said. "The point is, are you okay?"

"My name is Summer, and yes, I'm perfectly fine," she said. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, why wouldn't I be?" I said.

"You've been through quite a lot. With the man."

I wondered what exactly she could see from that tree. I wondered if she could see clear through the kitchen to the bedroom, and if she had seen Lee and me estranged to our separate sides of the bed. I wondered if she could see beyond my anatomy and sense the way my brain weighed love against commitment in a delicate balance or limbo, waiting for something to tip the scales.

"What do you know?" I said, and a part of me meant the question sincerely.

"You'd be surprised," she said. "He seemed like a good man."

I didn't ask a follow-up question, because, at that point, I didn't want to know what she knew. I tugged on her pulley and sent up her tuna melt, and then I sat at the base of the tree and we ate our separate sandwiches in silence.

SUMMER AND I BECAME FRIENDS, and each night after work I rented movies for the two of us to watch and turned my TV toward the window. Summer especially liked love stories or stories about a cause. I made chicken curry for us to share, although I hadn't known the recipe before. Summer sent an ingredient list based on her travels down on the pulley and I went out to buy garam masala and mango powder. Often after work I leaned on the trunk at the base of the tree and we watched the sun set, talking as the slow glow of twilight faded.

When Summer asked about Lee, I ignored her. Once, we talked about what would happen when we were forced out of the apartment and the tree, and I mentioned that I could find a new place for us to move in together. I looked at other apartments, but none of them felt right, as the trees around them were too small or too thin, obviously imported rather than native varieties.

One Sunday, I sat under the tree, and Summer and I shared a bottle of red wine. The days had turned slightly colder, and I talked about my parent's home in Lenexa, another Kansas city. There, the storms had crawled so that you could always see them coming clearly and from a great distance. The phone rang inside of my apartment window, and then Lee's voice came through on the voice machine. I stopped to listen.

"You ought to give him a chance," Summer said.

"Mind your own business," I said.

"I wasn't trying to pry," Summer said. "There's love there."

"I'm not so sure," I said. Summer was a romantic. She lived in a tree. She had been trying to fit Lee into every conversation as of late, and I had had it.

"Almost certainly," she said. "I can see a lot from up here."

"What are you talking about?"

Then Summer told me about the week before Lee left, and how, on her first night in the tree, Lee had come home from work with what looked like good news. The window had been closed, and she had been unable to hear, but he had walked in the door and picked me up to spin me around in the kitchen. She saw me tilt my head back to laugh. I tried to place everything I knew about myself into the body of that woman, laughing in an apartment kitchen with a man she loved, and then I thought about deterioration, the end of fall, and leaves giving in to gravity. I didn't know that girl anymore and I wasn't sure I ever had.

"Listen to me, tree woman," I said. "You should stay out of it."

"That's not my name," Summer said.

"That's not the point," I said, and I walked back inside where I shut all of my windows.

A few days passed. I watched a romantic comedy alone, and the phone rang, but I turned down the message-machine volume. A demolition crew arrived early one morning, and, on my way to work, I saw them take measurements of the tree in preparation for its impending destruction. From my car, I saw them raise their heads and speak up into the tree, but with the windows rolled up I couldn't hear what they said to Summer.

I remembered the two of us laughing the week before at a movie about two sisters who love two brothers. Finally, after about a few days, I brought out a plate of curry as a peace offering. It was dusk, but it was already dark enough that I couldn't clearly see into the tree, which loomed above me. "Tree woman!" I called out as a joke. I heard her laugh up in the branches, and I was relieved that she had forgiven me. Then, after a beat, I heard a man's voice. I stood at the base of the tree and listened to the murmurs above. Good for her, I thought and took the plate back inside. I opened my windows and listened to their joint laughter. The wind tossed the leaves, and, after a while, all went quiet.

I tried not to bother Summer and her lover, at whom I never got a good look. He came only at night, and not every night. I figured that he had a job or some other relevant commitment. When I passed below the tree at night on my way out for groceries or a drink with friends, the two of them were silent. Each day I exchanged niceties with Summer, who, in the day light, was alone in the branches. A few times there was enough evening light that I thought could see the tree man's face through the leaves from my kitchen window. He looked like someone I had known once, with a firm, set jaw, but it was hard to tell. Lee didn't call anymore. I looked at the paint squares on my wall. Fawn would have been a fine color, I said out loud to no one. I missed Lee, and I kept to my side of the bed an imaginary line drawn down the middle that I couldn't bring myself to cross. I reserved the other half of the defeated mattress for what I had already lost.

I ran out of milk one night and tiptoed below the tree on my way out to the store, careful to avoid pinecones and twigs. I sidestepped the construction tape that the demolition crew had strung around, but right below platform, I could hear that Summer and her lover were still awake and talking. She said something I couldn't quite make out in a chant-like cadence, and then, the man spoke. I had heard his voice before. In fact, I realized it was a voice I knew intimately.

"Lee?" I said into the tree. "Lee, is that you?"

"Urn," Lee said. "Um, yes."

"It's not what you think," Summer said.

"What are you doing up there?" I said.

"He wanted another chance," Summer said. "He was planning a grand gesture. A romantic coup d'etat, if you will."

"How long has he been in there?" I said. "Has he been sleeping in the tree with you?"

"It's not like that!" Summer said. "I'm playing cupid. He came to me for help."

I remembered the sound of the two of them together at night, their laughter high in the branches. I thought of the silence in the tree limbs very late, and suddenly, I thought about my brick.

"Listen," Summer said, her words quickened. "This isn't about me."

"You can't let him live there!" I said. "It's not right!"

"Do you want me to come down and be with you?" Lee said.

"What?" I said. "What did you say?"

"Tell me to come back," Lee said, and a new confidence fortified his voice.

I thought about what Summer had said about Lee and me together in the kitchen. For a moment, I let myself recall the way I felt in his arms and the sensation of my skin pressed against his. I looked up at his dark silhouette in the tree, and I imagined myself making room for Lee again on the refrigerator's shelves or in the underwear drawer. To do so would be to admit that I was unhappy alone, which wasn't unbearable. I knew suddenly and with great certainty that I could relent for this man. I could forever fold the socks that he would wear on his two feet. But then, I realized that might have been his plan all along: his checkmate move. I wondered how much of what I was feeling came from within me, and how much came from the strategy they had devised together. Was this love, I wondered, or defeat?

"Fuck you, tree woman," I said finally.

"That's not my name," she said.

"I know," I said.

The next day, I missed my morning alarm, because I had slept in fits and woken tangled in my sweaty sheets. I tried to make a run for my car, because I wanted to avoid Summer and any mention of Lee on my way to work, so I opened the door to the complex and I started to sprint.

"Wait!" Summer said. "Hold on, he's not coming back. I promise."

I stopped. "Where is he?" I said.

"I don't know," Summer said. "I told him to leave."

"I thought we were friends," I said.

"You need to learn to commit," Summer said.

"Commit to what?" I said.

"Commit to anything," she said. "A friend, an apartment, a cause. A man, a tree."

"How will I know which one is the right one?" I said, and I meant it. I wanted to know what I should do, and it seemed like she might tell me.

"You choose," she said. "And then you stick it out."

I DIDN'T KNOW WHERE TO start, so I read a short book that advocated veganism and included pictures of mangled cow carcasses in a meat factory. Summer sent down information on the preservation of the rainforests, universal healthcare, and the legalization of marijuana. I wasn't sure what I believed in any longer, and, in our nightly conversations, I asked Summer for advice. In speaking about the various causes in which she believed, she said things that sounded like they should make sense, but I wasn't certain how I felt about anything anymore. The city posted a notice on my door giving me a week to move out, and I ignored it. I looked at job ads each morning, thinking maybe a career shift would help, and I read the news each night. I waited for a call-to-action, and I aired my thoughts to Summer and kept her up late with my musings.

"This is an act of avoidance," she said one night. "It's a filibuster."

"I'm doing the best that I can," I told her.

Then, a few days into my search, I was out for coffee with Annie, a co-worker from the library. I saw a city worker preparing to fell a downtown tree a few blocks from my apartment.

"How's Lee?" Annie asked as we neared the tree, raising hervoice as the man started up his saw. I still hadn't admitted that Lee had gone.

I recognized the worker as a member of the same demolition crew that planned to take down Summer's tree. The gleaming teeth of the electric saw pierced the tree's middle and threw dust all around. The tree was not unlike my own, even if it didn't hold the same historical significance. The sound when the tree met the saw was a scream from somewhere deep inside the bark, and I thought of Summer and the gape that would sit under my window after the men had pulled out the last of her stump. I realized I loved Summer like a sister or a long-lost friend, and that now she was all that I had.

"No!" I shouted. "Stop!"

"What?" Annie said. "What are you talking about?"

"Hey!" I said and stepped toward the man, who was surrounded by the same construction tape now looped around Summer's tree.

"Have you lost it?" Annie said. The man looked up, quieting his saw as my friend grabbed my arm and tried to pull me down the street. Then, I picked up an empty can from the sidewalk and launched it at the man's head. It hit him squarely in the temple and thumped against his helmet, and he set down his saw, cursing at me. With nothing else around, I threw my iced coffee at his chest, and it splashed miraculously.

"That's it. You're going to jail," he said. He put in a call on his radio and told the person on the other end to call the police.

"Don't try to run, you bitch," he said. A crowd had gathered around us on the sidewalk, and someone from the crowd shouted at me, but I stood my ground.

ANNIE BAILED ME OUT OF jail, and, on the drive home, she made clear to me that she no longer wanted to be associated with me. The loss seemed insignificant to me now, when I had already lost so much. In the grass plot in front of the tree, a large sign had been erected renaming the complex Royal Oaks. I gave it a kick, but it did not budge, so I stepped around it and shouted up to Summer. "You'll never believe what I did!" The weather was cold, but I felt heat stirring in me from within me, and I told her Summer about my protest and arrest.

"I feel the need to caution you," Summer said, her voice groggy.

"Caution me?" I said.

"You had good intentions, but what you did was drastic," she said. "Remember to balance action and inaction, forcefulness and gentleness. We are but fleas on the dog of time. There's no need to be hasty."

"What!" I said. "I took a public stand against the destruction of our native trees."

"Listen," Summer said. "We're running out of time here. Construction begins tomorrow. I'm going to have to leave soon."

"Leave?" I said. "We're just getting started."

"I've done what I can," she said. "I've raised awareness."

"What about me?" I said.

"This isn't about you," she said.

I went inside and poured myself a shot of whiskey that Lee had neglected to take. I thought there was a chance that Summer was right, but I felt propelled forward by the force of my actions. Time was running out, and I needed to make a change. I called Lee, whose voice machine picked up, and I said, "Come back. Stay with me. Please, be mine."

The next morning, there was an early knock on my door. I leapt out of bed and threw it open, anticipating Lee's arms around me as the assurance that I had chosen correctly.

"Mind if I show the view?" said Debbie, a fresh a crowd of suited men behind her.

"What?" I said. "Where's Lee?"

"The view," Debbie said, pointing.

"Ma'am," one of the men said, "you're not making any sense." One of his colleagues made a move to push me out of the way, but I resisted.

"No!" I said firmly, and I shut the door.

"That's fine," Debbie said from behind the closed door. "But you know that you have to be out by the end of the day."

"Fascists!" I yelled.

"It's only a matter of time," I heard her say.

I THREW MYSELF ONTO MY couch, picked up the phone, and dialed Lee's number a few times, but each time his voice-message machine picked up. "Tell me in a few words what you're calling for, and I'll get back to you," his recorded voice said before each beep. I tried to fathom a way to say everything I needed to say in such a short amount of space: that without him, I felt a constant and continual untethering, as though I were always circling a center I could not reach, and that the world without him seemed impossible in its infiniteness. I wanted to say that in moments of terror or sadness I sometimes placed my hand on his unoccupied side bed, yearning for a piece of his energy, which was not unlike a gravitational pull. To be with Lee was to hold a heavy rock and to be tugged, gently but firmly, toward the core of the earth. Finally, I said, "Fawn would have been a nice color."

I went to the window and opened it, but Summer's platform was empty. The peacefulness I had found at the end of the protest slipped out from somewhere inside me and evaporated into the air. I tried to force the feeling of certainty that I had felt in front of the man with the saw, but it escaped me, and I felt only a great void inside of my chest.

I was angry with Debbie, Lee, and Summer. The time had come for drastic action, and I had been abandoned. Summer had said to commit, and I had. Yet, she had fled at the moment of truth. I grabbed a few things--a change of clothes, a gallon of water, a couple of cans of beans, and a can opener--and I put them into a backpack, which I then wore. I walked out of the front door, knowing that I might very well never see the rest of my belongings again, but I had never really grown attached to them. Outside, from the base of the tree, I could see that Summer had taken all of her things with her, leaving only the pulley system.

I took hold of the nearest tree branches, and I felt new warmth on my face. I pulled with all my might and got a foothold on a low branch. I hoisted myself up to the next and watched a small beetle skitter over my fingers. I had never climbed a tree before, but I felt confident I would make it to the top. Standing on a branch halfway up, I noticed that sometime over the past day, the demolition crew had poised a small crane on my lot. I thought about Quantrill and about how this tree alone had survived his violent protest, and the thought gave me strength. I looked up and took the next branch, and a cicada chirped and flew away. It was definitively the end of fall, and the few remaining leaves were a dull brown. They hung limply from the branches, the last remnants of summer's growth and life. Fawn, I thought, reminded of the brown color-patch on my wall and of all that I had passed up. I looked up toward the highest branch and toward the top of the tree, and then I looked up at the sky above the tree, which stretched around the earth like a pale, blue iris. I reached above my head again and again, taking each branch in turn, and I fixated on the treetop, certain that if I focused only on the cluster of leaves there rather than the sky beyond, I would reach it eventually.
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Author:Lang, Jameelah
Publication:Witness
Date:Mar 22, 2019
Words:4857
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