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Stories Winter 2016


The Malvern Tree

            by  Tom Sheehan


Malvernia Plenibott telephoned Angus Threadgold, the tree man who lived on the other side of town, telling him she wanted a tree cut down behind her home. “Do it on a Wednesday, any one of the three Wednesdays coming up, and not on any other day. And have done with it and out of here by twilight.” She said that phrase again: “By twilight.” Her voice carried pictures, Angus said, and others said the same thing, as it turned out. 


Being only one part of the story, an observer of sorts, I’m trying to bring it all together for you from that scratch start. Where it came to me piecemeal, so I give it to you, knowing further declarations are to be made, gauged, assembled from your own interpretations, like being in two or three places at the same time can help you out.


Angus also said, from that first conversation, that the edge of Malvernia’s voice was not one asking for an estimate, nor seeking good business relations, but was an out-and-out demand. And too damned secretive, he hinted later on, after all this was aired out.


Angus did not know Malvernia, had never seen her, but from his small circle of journeymen and laborer pals had heard a few sparse words about her. Their terse descriptions made him suspect other knowledge or intent cut its way in her tone of voice. The crackle coming through the phone, he swore, leaped with its own static power, almost becoming visible or sensible. George at the garage, only a month or so prior, had told him about her and the more than ample equipment she carried, saying, “She’s got hair belongs on a pillow, man, and all spread out.” George raised his eyebrows at those last words, like a dangling participle invoking additions. Then, with a kind of social justice, a statement of balance, righting what was obvious to a crusty man of the world, said what a great guy her husband Josh was, and meaning a whole lot more with his statement.


Angus believed all hungers and satieties, no matter how deep or hot they get, draw lines of their own where good guys come into the act, or those lines ought to be drawn. He equated good guys with comrades, thought of the due should be coming their way, to each man so benchmarked.


Such was his state of mind thinking about the venture of taking down a lone tree, perhaps absolved of all things except the tree’s silhouette at dawn or dusk. One hundred exceptional trees he swore he could bring back to mind: the whole side of Pressburn Hill, the silver maple in Ronnie Hatcher’s driveway that kept touching the neighbor’s house and mostly at night, the oak that lasted through five wars at Bramble Lane figuratively living on Dwayne Estes’ cesspool until the very end and whose dead roots now spawned hundreds of mushrooms on Dwayne’s lawn every hot summer right clean through October’s death kiss. Oaks, he knew, have a hard time letting go once they grab the earth.


Thus, he knew his perplexity was profound, and had explained it all to some of his cronies over beer on a few occasions:  Though I kill trees, drop them sometimes so hard they shake the earthI love trees. It gets me how they stand barren and bleak against winter, flush and heavy against spring rains and again against the excitement of September hurricanes driving clean through them, like spears or ax heads in the hands of a merciless god. Oh, I can laugh about some trees never letting go.


In his crowd he had told all the odd and awed stories, and I heard many of them; the bad fall at Wingate Walk where the last ash tree he’d seen in years dropped dead across a doctor’s car, or the tall slim maple held up for hours in the arms of a stubborn oak, or the hidden cache of coins his saw bit into one sterling morning in the bowels of an old chestnut, and flushed a thousand hornets from that horde in sudden rebellion.


So it was, not in appeasement but more in curiosity, Angus went on the first Wednesday to look at Malvernia’s tree, Wednesday fixed in his mind as a “cover day.” It was, needless to say, an itch working on him.


Angus, to any casual observer, was a handsome dog; blond as dawn, rock-thick across the shoulders and chest, eyes brought up from deep-blue depths. His studies of land and critter were usually very deliberate; payday often dependent on that deliberation. And Malvernia, to his quick eye, was an absolute beauty all the way from left field, sexy as a welterweight knock-out punch, the lines of her personality pushing out from the first glance at her. Ample, his mind said,indelible and edible.


Yet for Angus, the tree man and an Earth man from way back, a trade-off was at work, a sobering point of dictation; pure beauty of the land came with the vista sweep from Plenibott’s back porch, flowing over 120 feet of manicured grass out to a small road running a path right across the green carpet. The sweeping view went slightly uphill for a half mile of grass to a private school grounds. More than half the school’s fields were fenced in by white corral-type fences, the kind that neatly separate horse-country parts of Virginia and West Virginia and Pennsylvania from other parts. Two dozen or so horses roamed on the acreage, their tails slashing white and brown semaphores.


To Angus it was a picture of fancy, the presentation of his long-time dream … to have a place like this for his own, to prep it, guard it, keep it. The tree Malvernia wanted him to cut down grabbed at his senses as he tried to remember the poem about a nest of robins in her hair. No more of the poem came back to him, nor could he find the word pastoral, though he searched for it.


With all of that on him, he wondered how the decision was made to cut the tree down, even by the good guy, the solid Joe, the one-in-a-million guy Josh Plenibott he had heard about


The tree stood for something. It was elegant, its arms leaping for the sun, like they might have popped out of a Weight Watcher’s greenhouse. An April breeze would carry its new-year odor on evening’s breath, or there’d be a neat patch of light slanting through it from a harvest moon.


Angus Threadgold, the tree man, felt caught in an awed device.


Malvernia’s eyes all this time sought agreement, and made promises an index finger could easily summon.


Angus had heard that she told one of George’s mechanics at the garage, him at his lunch break and her bubbling out over the hood of her car, that the City Fathers could have named the town after her, that she was a perfect match for little old Malvern slotted along the Paoli Pike in the Keystone State, “Only I’m the better part of the match. I have more life in me than the whole town’s ever had. It’s wrapped too tight. It needs air. It can’t breathe right. It could stand me getting loose for a spell. My mum, that sharp old girl, made sure of that. She knew Malvern clearer than anybody thinks. You can bet on that.”


Then she applied bodily punctuation the mechanic could no way mimic, though he did generate gross interpretations.


Malvernia was about as sexy as a woman could be. She wore her clothes often baring her soul, if not practically everything else. The word about town said Josh Plenibott, her husband of almost twelve years, and without a kid in the caboodle, was, as George repeated a number of times, “a regular guy, a good Joe, a one-in-a-million kind of person whose situation required his personality.”… or words to that effect.


Thus, in the strange course of events that shape people’s lives, force issues, make determinations and decisions perhaps sometimes best left undone, I can only assume that Josh Plenibott found solace in the tree. A few neighbors said he often sat on his porch, even on winter days, studying the tree, how it made shadows across thin tracts of the lawn or snow, how it leaped at noon for the bright star of the sun. He might have noted the crispy limbs in winter’s winds, their music cracking and bending but seldom breaking, yet knew those limbs were sweeter in spring’s breezes. He had to see how birds made nests in those limbs, where crows or ravens screamed at passersby, where blue jays waged local wars and sparrows answered back?


Solitude, it’s often said, backbones some men for life’s normal rigors. I can only assume some of Josh’s plenty under sheets had to be tempered by distance, being alone with his thoughts. Some men I’ve known found it in liquor or golf or baseball cards, the separation they get from other routines, a piece of life that might have been, the chief hunter of the clan lying back and gnawing on the pick of the bones. You name the cave and it’s been that way ever since.


I don’t find that hard to believe… because I have a tree of my own, have had it for over 60 years and still depend on it at the end of the day and at every dawn. The lone visible link of a set of tire chains I heaved across its huge split trunk reminds me daily of that youthful toss more than half a century past. The tree’s spirit rides with me on all kinds of days, and I can believe that Josh Plenibott had to go to his own tree to find his inner peace in his back yard. By this act we might discern some parts of his extraordinary life with the exorbitant Malvernia.


Malvernia, I also heard from elsewhere, came hard at Angus for a couple of days, asking at first and then demanding for the schedule of when he intended todrop the tree. That was her word… drop.


“I’m in a hurry, Angus. You know what I’m like… don’t do tomorrow what you can do today, or last night.” The edge was always there for interpretation… a flash of skin, a strap touched or slowly thumb-snapped in threat or promise, an eye darkened with fleshy intent. “That tree’s an eyesore for me. My husband gawks at it too much. I want to shake him out of that habit. It’s not good for him. I’m adamant at that! You’ve got to drop that tree for me!” Her look could cloud an eagle’s eyes, could dim a man’s horizon.


Nobody doubted Angus’s reports of his encounter, not for a split second.


And Angus subsequently told George at the garage, “Malvernia Plenibott, who could probably break your back, is goddamned jealous of a friggin’ tree in her own back yard!” Then he added, “Think of it, George, an old Packard Clipper or a Buick Roadmaster or a ’55 or ’56 T-Bird all fixed up shiny and new and sitting in your driveway on new Michelins, the chrome alive and aching for road slash, and you can’t buy a pint of gas for the damn rig. Don’t that just crush you? Wouldn’t that just break your balls? All that meat and no potatoes.”


Angus, eventually at his own pace and at his own speed on another Wednesday of the month, was about to buzz the high-speed chain of his saw into the heart of the tree. This was after selecting the spot for the wedge to be sliced out of it, to direct the fall of the maple across the yard toward the school and away from the house. All during work preparation his heart was talking in his throat. Hundreds of trees he had cut down, on front lawns, back yards, driveways, on sites where swimming pools would be planted instead of bush, tree or bramble. Once he had cleared a whole hill of its trees for an elderly housing project, and felt not a single pain.


But this intent was different. Self-criticism mounted, and doubt surfaced, even as the vibration from the Husquevana thundered up his arms. The roar of the high revolution chain never failed to thrill him with its tune. And a slice of shade from the tree trunk held off the morning sun, where he found a minute coolness. Still aware of the potency of Malvernia’s early-morning, Wednesday-morning perfume, sudden pictures of its deliberate application came jamming their way into his mind. With those images appeared the whole bath scene and all beforehand. It was ignition!


Oh, Angus, poor woodsman caught in the middle.


There are among us those who suspend activity on late September and October evenings when we hear the litany of a distant chain saw, the Matins of evening prayers aimed at winter survival, cordwood soon to be piled like ingots for drying, harvest for red-topped winter stoves. The images are endless. Men like Angus always know that music. Masons know it, carpenters, and barn builders through four centuries behind them. It is carried in the mind or worn like a medallion.


Malvernia, watching him, sitting on the steps of the porch and drinking coffee, marked each sip by a noisy placement of the cup on the stone step, the diversion intentional to the dumbest observer.


Angus had found arguments within himself. He had spent hours thinking about calling Josh and asking his permission to take down the tree, to spin the tale out beforehand, to jerk things out of Malvernia’s hands. The thought bedeviled him. Now, impacted by odd directions, the Husquvarna vibrated in his hand, shook up his arm. The engine roared at top speed, the new chain glistened like lightning in rapid circulation, music of the spheres coming anew. A thousand times he had heard morning or twilight chain saws holding distance in place, had paused every time as if a new prayer were being said. There were mornings he wished that he was a whittler working a small limb, making simple cuts with a good knife, lazing beside a fishing stream. Life needed balance.


Taking a deep breath, believing what he was about, and what was about him, Angus slapped at the safety-bar shut off. The Husquvarna went silent. He set the saw on the ground and straightened himself. His shoulders and arms and shaggy blond head joined that deliberate pronouncement. The air of Malvern was stilled. 


Now, at the strange pause of the tree man, the saw silent, a bare whisper of chain oil cut through the morning air.  Malvernia leaped off the porch, her skirt flying as if worn in deliberate pieces, her legs flashing their way to dark forever.


The coffee cup clattered on the granite steps and broke into pieces. A withering scowl strained her face.


“What’s the matter now, Angus? Why are you stopping? You only have until twilight. Until evening.” She ran toward Angus Threadgold as though he were a goalie in a game. Her arms waved, her body shook all over. “Why have you stopped? Is the saw broke? Can you fix it?”


All the words came out of her in a rush, the way eternity might be assessed or measured. “My God, Angus, it’ll be dark before you know it. We have to get this done. It has to be gone, all of it, by evening.”


The lady of the house, the lady of the tree, stood inches from the saw man, her eyes afire, yet a small dance of perspiration rolled on her forehead, ran on her throat clean down into the fullness of her breasts bursting from containment. The saw man saw powdery lace delicately sitting on Malvernia Plenibott.


The pose she struck, hands on hips, devil-sweet jaw thrust outward, her whole body seeming top heavy for the moment, almost caricatured itself for Angus. He had picked up the saw and was holding it in one hand. He thought of the likely trade-off, and then thought about the good guy of the house.


He wanted to laugh, but held off on that simple rebuke. Instead he said, “It’s the only goddamn tree on this piece of property, lady, and I am definitely having second thoughts about cutting it down.” He had spit it all out. The relief rushed through him.


“You promised me it would be out of here by evening, you bastard. You promised that.”


Angus said, “I called your husband earlier. I told him what I was going to do. I think he’s on his way, maybe here any minute. It’s as much his tree as yours. He’s got to be in on the decision. If he says to cut it down, I’ll be out of here before twilight.” He had a rush of joy, as he added, “You can bet on that, lady.”


In the silence surrounding them, above the quick odor of engine oil, they heard the engine of an automobile cut out and a door slam.


Malvernia Plenibott leaned heavily toward Angus Threadgold, and said, “You son of a bitch, I wouldn’t have let you anyway.”


Angus, to this day, still says he doesn’t know what Malvernia meant by her final statement, but doesn’t think she meant anything about the tree.


Bio:  Sheehan served in 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, and graduated Boston College, 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansACollection of FriendsFrom the Quickening; The Saugus Book; Ah, Devon Unbowed; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; This Rare Earth & Other Flights; Vigilantes East; Korean Echoes (nominated, Distinguished Military Award)The Westering, (nominated, National Book Award); Murder at the ForumDeath of a Lottery Foe; and Death by Punishment. Published in 2014-15 were An Accountable Death, In the Garden of Long Shadows,The Nations, Where Skies Grow Wide, Cross Trails and Six Guns, Inc. He has multiple work in Ocean MagazineRosebud, Greensilk Journal, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House JournalCopperfield ReviewKYSO Flash, Soundings East, Literally Stories, Literary OrphansIndiana Voices Journal, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, 3 AM Magazine, EastlitRope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard,  KYSO Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, The Cenacle, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, and five Best of the Net nominations (and one winner) and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015. A chapbook, Swan River Daisy, is currently in publication process, and two short story collections have been accepted for publication.