By Lem Thomas
Jack hiked all afternoon through the Catoctin Range, the air bone-chilling, the remnants of fall foliage damp and moldering underfoot in faded reds and yellows turning to brown, then drove back to D.C. tired and relaxed, Garrison Keillor droning on the radio. He didn’t give much thought to what the trees had said to him. Their words did not seem important, or directed at him, or even comprehensible.
Roger lounged in the back seat, gently panting, watching the traffic out the rear window as headlights began to pop on behind them. The traffic picked up in Frederick as the farmhouses gave way to exurban McMansions.
He entered the city and weaved his way down Georgia Avenue and 14th Street, parking in front of his Columbia Heights row house. He owned the second floor, a financial sinkhole purchased at the height of the condo boom just after his divorce. He opened the door for Roger, and the muscular German Shepherd's body rippled as he sprung from the car.
The spindly young elm growing through the sidewalk said something, possibly a greeting, as the two mammals brushed past. Jack ignored it. Roger seemed not to notice.
Once inside, radio tuned to a bluegrass show, Jack went to the cabinet and began gathering the accoutrements for his Saturday evening ritual. Bourbon, a cocktail glass, and the shaker. He lit a candle. He turned, filling the shaker with ice from the front of the freezer before retrieving the bottle of vermouth (rosso), the Angostura bitters, and the Maraschino cherries from the refrigerator door.
The perfect Manhattan was an art he had perfected over the ten-year course of his marriage. Roger gazed up at him, head between paws, as he made the preparations, first dropping a cherry into the glass and placing it in the freezer to chill. Then, a measure of bourbon into the shaker, a quarter as much vermouth, and a precise three dashes of bitters. He let the concoction rest as he fed Roger, taking equal care with the proportions of wet and dry dog food and water. As Roger ate, Jack closed the shaker and shook until ice formed on the chrome, burning his palms with the cold. He retrieved the glass from the freezer and poured. The candle flame shown through the amber liquid in the frosted glass with a dull glistening. Jack sipped.
Roger’s muzzle prodded Jack to life Sunday, cotton-mouthed and sore. He fed the dog and cleaned himself and pretended to work and at last gave in as he knew he would and made his way down to the Church of the Rock, his private nickname for the 12th Street dive bar’s Sunday special—one dollar Rolling Rock all day. The sidewalk trees spoke to him on the way. Jack, too hung over to give a damn, let himself listen, but he couldn’t make out their words.
He arrived at the office Monday and deposited his lunch in the break room fridge (ham and cheese on white bread, apple, a little bag of potato chips), settled into his cubicle—one of dozens in this vast cube farm in the basement of a boxy K Street office building—and logged into his computer. Jack tried not to think about what the trees had said on his walk to the Metro station. The words itched the back of his brain, but Jack managed to ignore them through the distraction of work.
His assignment this week, and all other weeks, involved clicking through thousands of pages of documents that might or might not be relevant to the big lawsuit—in this case, a copyright infringement claim—the subtle legal arguments and courtroom strategies of which Jack knew next to nothing, just the bare minimum to allow him to do his job, despite his designer law degree and six figure student debt.
After lunch alone in his cube with a magazine, Jack took a quick walk around the block to stretch his legs, the chilly grayness a brief respite from the mind-numbing fluorescents and glaring white plastic surfaces of the basement. The trees downtown were young and thin, poking up from metal grates set into the sidewalks, planted in recent years as part of some sort of green city movement. Chinese elms almost bare, maples still burning crimson. He made out some of what they said. “Still.” The word repeated. Jack hummed to himself as he walked, finding it harder to ignore the voices; he knew he would have to figure out what they wanted someday. He put it off, but it nagged him like a deadline one calendar page away.
Autumn passed. Trees murmured through November. Thanksgiving dawned clear and cold. Jack took Roger out, the dog’s plume of breath mingling with his own. The neighborhood seemed deserted; most of the row houses—late Victorians of red brick, gray stone, and gothic ornamentation—were chopped up like his own into condos for transient young professionals now back home in Ohio or New England or the Virginia suburbs for the holiday. Jack imagined himself as the sole survivor of a great plague. He had told his family back home that he couldn’t make it this year, that he had to work—a lie.
He walked east and crossed the line of gentrification. The neighborhood charm gave way to sinister blocks of identical houses of grimy dull brick, bars obscuring dark windows.
He saw a boy sitting on some steps bouncing a red ball between his legs.
“What up, my man?” the boy said.
Jack walked on, then paused and turned his head. The boy wore a full open-mouthed smile. Merry. Roger sat, his eyes not leaving the ball.
The boy said, “Son, why don’t you listen.” As he stressed the last word, he spread his arms wide, hands down and fingers splayed, the ball defying gravity in his left palm.
“I’m older than you,” Jack heard himself say, as if listening to a message from himself on a worn out answering machine.
The boy laughed softly, his smile not faltering, the ball now balanced on his right foot. Jack lost sight of it as the boy stood up, turned his back, and left. He watched the boy toss the ball up and catch it, over and over, as he diminished down street.
By two o’clock, Jack was three-fourths drunk on his couch. He drank bourbon and pretended to watch football. Roger dozed, hind legs twitching. Jack decided he needed Thanksgiving dinner. He drove down 14th to Mass Ave and hit 395. Soon he crossed the Potomac, entering Virginia.
He pulled up to his ex-wife’s house, a mid-century colonial on a tree-lined Fairfax street. The splotchy brown frozen Bermuda grass crunched under his feet as he made his way to the front door. He could hear voices from inside: “we can’t just ignore him…,” “no, let me get it….”
His sister-in-law, ex-sister-in-law, opened the door wearing a forced smile and sad eyes.
“Jack, this is a surprise – I thought you’d be in Jacksonville for the weekend?” The way she turned up the last word sounded like an accusation, but he and Beth had always been close – more like old friends than in-laws.
“Hi-ya, Beth!” He reached in to give her a hug. “Margaret around?”
“She’s cooking. Dad’s here, and—oh, Jack, you’ve been drinking—”
“Hello, Jack.” A new voice in the doorway: Margaret’s new husband, Alistair, stepping in front of Beth. “What can we help you with today?”
“What, you selling something?” He tried to chuckle with good cheer but it came out as an insolent snicker. “Just hoping for some grub, worked late last night and missed my flight—”
Alistair’s voice remained smooth and calm. “Jack, I don’t think this is a good—”
“Hey Margo!” Jack called into the house. “You in there? Tell fucking Ally-boy that husband number one wants some turkey!”
“You need to leave now, Jack,” said Alistair, anger rising.
“Go,” mouthed Beth behind him. She wept, but her expression was stern.
And then Jack stood alone in the yard surrounded by the trees—towering oak and maple, bare branches reaching like claws. They laughed at him. He could hear words between their howls: “… fool …,” “…admit it …,” “just be still, you idiot ….”
Jack walked into the forest during a December ice storm. Roger was game despite the frigid damp. They’d walked down Columbia Road to Calvert Street and the Duke Ellington Bridge. Now, as they entered the thick woods of Rock Creek Park, the trees laughed—not at him, but with joy.
With Roger off the leash, Jack picked a spot near a sycamore and stood still, looking up. The feeling of freezing rain on his face faded as his skin hardened. His roots made their way into the frozen earth, anchoring him. They felt like tendrils, growing warm with the depth, searching for water. His arms extended, joining the sycamore.
Roger paused from sniffing the ground all around and looked up at him, whimpering. Jack tried to tell the dog it was okay, but he couldn’t form the words in the hollow spot his mouth had become. He grew snug, cozy within his bark. Later, Roger sniffed around his trunk without recognition, then bounded up the embankment towards home.