Sometimes, knowing can be too much, and not knowing is just enough...
By Joyce Melton
At the back of the property in Las Perdidas, a gnarled old tree grew. I'd seen it out there many times since we moved. It must have been there before the new subdivision went in and the builders had left it standing because it probably costs money to bulldoze a tree, even a tree that no one needs or wants.
Our property lay in the back of the development, the wide corner lot in a cul-de-sac that could be reached only after several turns on winding roads with names like Cottonwood Circle and Palo Verde Lane. A concrete wall and a canal separated us from farm fields. I couldn't see much out there; grape vines, maybe, but I knew nothing of agriculture.
I sat in my chair at the big window in the family room that looked out over the pitiful attempt at landscaping the developers had made. Patchy grass grew to about thirty yards from the house with a border made of some succulent, now desiccated by months of apathy and neglect. For a premium development, Las Perdidas seemed to have been skimped on the details.
But it pleased me that they had not bulldozed the old tree. Perhaps it was the last survivor of some citrus grove that used to exist before bedroom communities spreading out from Los Angeles had forced the conversion of farmland and orchards into housing tracts with six different floorplans and eight different elevation treatments and five different styles that, with right and left hand variants, made it possible to have 480 homes in a development and no two of them exactly alike.
I knew my dad, Arthur, had to drive 45 minutes to the college where he taught people who didn't want to know things they would not remember after the next test. My stepmom, Ellyne, drove only half as far to work in an office where she hated her boss.
Adele, the housekeeper, came twice a week from somewhere closer to clean up messes my folks did not have time or energy to deal with and to fight with the constant dust that filtered even through the air conditioning and after three days lay on every surface inside the house, a gray-gold layer of soft grit that made any cloth or skin that touched it turn black.
Donna, the nurse sent by the agency once a week to take my temperature and listen to my heart, lived just outside Las Perdidas and had the shortest distance to travel but who knew how far she went to see her other patients.
A gardener came every two weeks, but I did not know his name or where he lived. He parked his truck in the street, and three men who worked for him took out their tools and mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges that grew in front and did other things that kept things from returning to the desert it had once been before people brought water and asphalt to this place. Then they put their tools in the truck and drove away only to come back another Saturday and do it all over again.
Our house is two-story but I never go upstairs, my bedroom is on the ground floor because of my chair. I get up in the morning, often after my parents have already left. I do what is necessary in the bathroom then roll my chair into the kitchen where I toast bread and spread it with peanut butter, pour orange juice into a glass, peel a banana and eat what I must to live.
Then I take my book and roll into the family room, down the short ramp that is in place of a step because of my chair. I park in front of the big window that provides a view of the gray-blue mountains and the lonely, craggy, green tree. I read. Sometimes I use my laptop to surf the web and even visit with friends through various social programs. I might even start up an editing program and try to write something.
If it is one of the days that Adele comes, she will make lunch for me, often something she has brought like carnitas or tamales. She feels sorry for me in my chair but she does not want to show that because it would be disrespectful. I can tell, though. I can smell pity now, after six years with this face and this body.
If it is the day Donna comes, she will bring me a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal. She's not supposed to and she won't let me pay her back but she says she enjoys seeing me eat and enjoy dipping the meat and fries into the barbecue sauce. Once I dipped the chocolate chip cookies that come with the meal, too, just to see what that tasted like. Donna takes the trash from my feast away and no one else in the world knows that we are breaking some rule, if we are.
I comb my hair carefully to cover up the dent in the left-hand side of my skull. With the scars on my hands and face on that side, I look strange enough. I can't control my right arm or leg or the right side of my body completely and sometimes I make gestures or grimaces that I don't know I'm doing. I can walk a little but spasms in my leg sometimes send me lurching into furniture or once through a glass door, so mostly I stay in my chair.
I was the lucky one. The accident killed my mom and my little sister. The insurance… the insurance paid for lots of medical miracles that saved my life and for physical therapy that lets me function as well as I do. I could get more therapy and perhaps someday I will but after five years I said enough. For now. The big thing is that I have decided not to kill myself and I guess that is a miracle too.
Why should I get off so easy? I was driving that day.
The insurance made the down payment on this house and an annuity helps make the payments. It's really my house. Three years ago, Dad married Ellyne, the paralegal who had helped him file papers against the insurance company. I like Ellyne, she ignores me when I whine and feel sorry for myself and she makes me laugh because she knows lots of dirty jokes.
I finally learned how to talk again but lots of people can't understand me. Dad has trouble but Donna and Ellyne and even Adele seem to know what I'm saying when I mumble and bark and slobber my way through a sentence. Adele even understands my bad Spanish.
I'm not unhappy. I have books and television and the internet to keep me from being too bored. And when none of them are working, I sit at the window and watch my tree turn sunshine into green leaves. That's a miracle, too.
I had read something that made me think again about just what kind of tree I had in the backyard and I had rolled my chair up close to the window to get as good a look as I could. It had dark green glossy leaves like a citrus but I didn't see any fruit. We hadn't lived in the new house through a winter or a spring yet, so I didn't know if it lost its leaves in the cold or what its flowers might look like.
So I was staring out at the tree when I saw the girl. I didn't know where she came from; it was as if one moment she wasn't there and the next she was. She had long dark brown hair I could see and she wore a green dress down almost to her ankles. I couldn't see if she had any shoes on. She stood there under the tree for a moment and I thought she looked back at me. She turned and was gone and I could not see where she went.
I watched then for a long while and I did not see her again, this slender girl with the long brown hair and the long green dress. I did not speak of her that evening when my father and Ellyne came home because -- well, I did not have anything to tell them that seemed worth the effort of making myself understood.
I dreamed of her that night. She stood under a taller tree than the one in my backyard. She wore the green dress and I could see that it had cuffs and a collar of white and she had a necklace and a bracelet of yellow stones and dangly earrings of the same stuff. Her eyes were amber, too, though they flashed green at times. I stared at her from a small hill where I stood in the sunlight with a crisp, fresh breeze that smelled of the sea blowing on my left side. My burned side.
She asked my name and I spoke in a clear voice. "I am Alex. Alexander MacDoove." The voice did not seem strange to me for this was a dream.
She repeated the name, getting the pronunciation right; it’s supposed to rhyme with hoof. “You're a Gael then," she said. "From Hibernia?"
"No, that would be Ireland. My ancestors came from Scotland."
"Och, aye," she said with a twinkle in her eye. "A long time ago then?"
"Yes, well, I guess so. I don't really know."
She said no more but picked a strong-smelling white flower from the tree and put it in her hair. I could smell the bloom from where I stood and it made me think of the bouquet my grandfather had sent for the funeral. Sharp and sweet with a bitter edge, it wasn't exactly a pleasant smell but it wasn't unpleasant either.
In the dream, the girl turned to walk away and was just gone, but that's how things happen in dreams.
The next day, I asked my father what kind of tree that was we had in the backyard. "What tree?" he said. I rolled to the window and pointed. He admitted that he did not know. "It looks like a fruit tree of some kind," he said. "Those dark, twisty branches make me think of an apple tree we had back in Illinois when I was a kid." He stood and stared at the tree for a while but then he had to leave to go to work. "I'll go out and look at it this weekend," he promised.
Ellyne took a look too and pronounced it an almond tree like they had in the Central Valley where she grew up. I still thought it looked like one of the orange or grapefruit trees I had seen all my life in Southern California. When Adele came, she identified it as la ruda but could not tell me the English name. The following day, Donna came and she agreed with me, some kind of citrus.
Two days later, my father kept his promise and walked the length of the backyard to look more closely at the tree. "I don't know what it is," he said when he came back. "Maybe a crabapple but it has a bad smell, like that stuff you can spray on your door to keep dogs away."
"If it were an apple or a crabapple," said Ellyne, "wouldn't it have fruit this time of year? And I don’t think apple trees have thorns.”
None of us knew.
I'd kept watch but I had not seen the girl again, and I hadn't dreamed of her that I remembered, either. On Monday, the first week of October, I was alone the whole day after Dad and Ellyne left. I sat in the chair reading a book I had found in Dad's library about trees of California. I looked at a lot of pictures but none of them matched up with the one in the backyard exactly.
Have I mentioned the pain? The pain was pretty intense on that Monday. The contractures on my left side from the burns ached and pulled, and the corner of my mouth where I suffer from neuralgia after the surgeries burned and stabbed. Those are annoying, combined with the cramps from the misbehaving muscles on my right side, they could keep me awake at night and make me irritable and unpleasant to be around.
But the pain, The Pain that deserved capital letters was always in my head, behind my right eye. It raged and cursed me; it challenged me to justify my continuing efforts to stay alive; it wanted me dead on that Monday because it hated my guts. I knew I should call Donna for an extra visit because a really bad bout of The Pain usually meant I would have a seizure within a few days. Maybe if I had a bad one while I was alone, I would die but I had never been lucky.
I had anti-seizure drugs I took every day and they kept things under control, usually. The insurance would pay for Donna to come out and give me a stronger shot if I thought I needed it. And a shot for The Pain, too, if I wanted. I didn't think I needed it and I didn't think I deserved it and I kept putting off calling her. I fought The Pain and I beat it back, all alone.
I didn't want to kill myself, just to avoid The Pain. I had better reasons than that.
It was early afternoon. I hadn't eaten any lunch because I hadn't felt like making any. I sat in the chair at the window in the family room and I stared out at the tree. I had the odd feeling that the sight of the tree, I had been staring at it for hours, had actually helped me defeat The Pain.
And there, I saw the girl again. Her dress was green and white this time, made of some flowing fabric, like silk. She stepped out of the shadows of the tree and shaded her eyes to look toward the house. I lifted my left hand to her but she probably could not see me behind the glass.
I spoke to her. More than one hundred yards away on the other side of a wall and I spoke to her in as normal a tone of voice as I could manage. "Come inside," I said. "I'll make us sandwiches and we can have tea."
She started toward the house. I watched her pick her way between clumps of weeds until she reached the raised border of the part of the back lawn that was supposed to be grassy. She lifted her skirt in both hands to step up and I saw that she was barefoot.
She smiled right at me then and I think she did see me. On the north side of the house, in the shade, the window would not have glare on it and maybe she could see me. I waved again then backed my chair away from the window and started around the card table in the family room toward the kitchen and the back door. I didn't know if it were locked but I assumed it was, Dad would have locked it when he came back in on Saturday.
I rolled into the kitchen, sat the brakes on my chair then stood up to take the three stumbling steps to the door, holding onto the countertop all the way. I fumbled the latch on the back door open with my disobedient right hand and turned the knob with my left. I swung the door out and she stood there smiling, barefoot and beautiful.
"I'm Twig," she said in the voice I remembered from my dream. "I wonder if I could borrow a cup of ambrosia?"
She wouldn't come inside so I staggered out and sat in one of the badly upholstered lawn chairs and she sat on the fake terra cotta railing of the patio wall.
Her skin was darker than I expected, darker than it had been in the dream but her eyes were that amber color that looked green in the shadows. I told her my name again and she nodded as if she already knew it. I asked where she lived and she made a vague gesture toward the mountains, the vineyards -- and the tree.
"What kind of tree is that?" I asked. She had no trouble understanding me and it seemed to me that my voice was clearer than usual, more distinct.
"It's a rue of some sort. They had them back where I grew up."
"Where was that?" I asked.
I thought she said something that sounded like Hell, but before I could get her to repeat it she asked, "What happened to you?"
"There was an accident," I said.
"You survived," she said. "I wonder why?"
No pity in her voice when she asked, just an expression of puzzlement. I blinked then I laughed. Lots of people think I'm choking when I laugh. She smiled.
"I've wondered the same thing," I said.
"Did you want to die?"
"I did. But not now," I said.
"Why not?" Again, blunt curiosity.
"Because other people died in the accident and if my surviving means anything, then I have to keep on living, for their memory." This was how I justified not taking my own life to myself, though I suspected that really, I was just too cowardly to do it.
She nodded, apparently satisfied with my answer.
We didn't say anything for a minute. A cooling breeze from the mountains fluttered the hems of her skirt. I noticed that the cloth was almost translucent where it stretched across her hip resting against the dirty rose of the concrete. I knew I would dream of her again and that sometime in the night I would have to deal with an erection caused by thinking of her.
"Are you lonely?" she asked.
I nodded but I said. "Not right now."
She smiled again. "I get lonely sometimes, too. I would like to visit again." She stood up.
I struggled to my feet, bracing myself against the weight of the chair and putting one hand on the top of the lounger nearby. "You'd be welcome. You're good company."
She traced a path between the clumps of grass in the failed lawn, watching her bare feet. I watched them too. She stepped over the border of the turfed area and onto the naked earth of the un-landscaped backyard. Then she turned. "Goodbye, Alex. I'll see you again," she said.
"Good-bye, Twig. I hope to see you soon," I called as she walked away.
I stood there, swaying a bit as undisciplined muscles twitched in the right side of my body. I watched her walk toward the tree, determined to see where she went. Somehow, I didn't. It was as if I were distracted for a moment and when I looked again she was gone, but I had not taken my eyes off her.
A rue tree, she had said. Vaguely, I somehow knew that citrus were members of the rue family. The Bible speaks of bitter rue as a medicine. Dogs and cats don't like the smell of citrus—and her name was Twig.
I stumbled going back into the house and fell on the small ramp there. I had to pull myself up and back into my chair using my good arm, the one that is only burned and scarred but still obeys me.
I didn't tell anyone else about my visitor. To be honest, I decided that I had imagined the whole thing, that I was losing my mind. As long as I could enjoy my insanity, I intended to keep it to myself. If anyone had an excuse for going crazy, I probably did.
I never did make myself any lunch and that evening when Ellyne brought pizza home, I ate three slices with a small salad.
"Good to see you with an appetite," she said. "I bought chocolate bon-bons for later."
She meant ice cream bon-bons, like they sell in movie theaters. I try to avoid eating anything that I need to use a fork or a spoon for. And forget about needing a knife. Finger foods are my specialty; the salad with dinner had been radishes, sliced cucumbers and baby carrots with a dipping sauce made of spiced oil and balsamic vinegar. I spilled only a little of the sauce.
"Can't wait," I said.
On Friday nights we all watched television together but I could not concentrate. I sat in my chair, staring at the sixty-two-inch hi-def screen and thought about Twig. Her skin was a warm but not dark olive and her lips were naturally coral. When she moved, I had seen the shape of her breasts against the thin fabric of her dress.
I wondered where she came from, where she went, where she lived. I wondered if she were real. I could not even guess what any of the television shows we watched might have been.
During a break, I did attract Dad's attention. "I wonder...." I began.
He looked at me curiously. I seldom said anything during these evenings. "I wanted to go out into the backyard but the ground is soft and there's that drop-off at the edge of the turfed area. Could you set some stones or bricks I could walk on, or use my chair...." I trailed off, not quite making it a question.
"You want a walkway from the patio out to the back yard past the lawn?" he asked.
I nodded. He'd understood me. So often I had to repeat myself when talking to my father.
"I think I could do that," he said. "At least make a start."
Ellyne commented, "I don't know why the back lawn isn't growing like the front one. It looks all patchy and some of the turf they set out is dead."
Dad nodded. "I've been meaning to have a word with the gardeners about that, too."
"Maybe it's not their fault," said Ellyne.
"Well, who's would it be?" Dad asked.
"The developers? Maybe they just dumped dirt they dug up when putting the houses in in the back and -- I don't know."
I stopped listening. I didn't care if the back lawn ever grew in green and golf-course-like. I wanted to be able to reach the tree at the back edge of the property. But I didn't want anyone to know that was what I was trying to do. And I didn't want to think about why.
I felt grateful that Dad didn't ask me why. Maybe he thought anything that I wanted to do that involved moving around and interacting with the world was good. Maybe it was.
I went to bed early, using a sponge on a stick to give myself a half-ass bath. Then I put on clean clothes and climbed between the sheets. The A/C sighed, blowing cool air into the room. Outside, it still hovered in the 80s and would not get cooler than 70 during the night. October in Southern California is undecided about whether it is the beginning of fall or the end of summer. Right now, the vote was in for summer weather.
I lay in the bed, bracing myself against a body pillow to damp down the unwanted and unexpected flinches my right half sometimes suffered while trying to fall asleep. The burning sensation under the scars on the left side of my face climbed up to where my ear used to be. The neuralgia around my rebuilt lips stabbed me with blunted needles, not as sharp as usual. My left arm and leg ached with the unusual efforts I had made with them during the day. That part actually felt rather good.
Feeling tired could be pleasant, contrasting with the exhaustion I felt after a bad day of pain or even seizures. I had expected to lie awake for some time, thinking, but instead, I drifted off to sleep much more quickly than I could manage most nights.
I dreamed of course. And some of the content of my dreams I do not remember and other parts I do not care to tell. But Twig came to me again in my dream. This time I was sitting in a sledge-like contraption on the patchy green back lawn. Something the gardeners had left? I didn't know. It had a seat, like a riding lawnmower and I rested there in the dream.
My limbs ached from exertion it seemed, had I walked so far? The blue sky above had those distant streaky, icy-looking clouds that seemed common in the winter. The mountains looked close and more purple than gray with gleaming white tops. Snow?
The tree, the rue tree, loomed against the horizon, evergreen in what I thought must be a winter landscape. Twig walked toward me across the dusty waste between the struggling green of the lawn and the gray concrete of the back wall. Skeletal vines twined around black crosses beyond the wall. Twig remained barefoot but her dress seemed to be more substantial, brown added this time as well as green and white.
"Hello, Alex," she said.
"Hello," I said.
"Look at yourself," she said.
I looked. My left arm was not scarred, my right arm not withered. My legs had full muscles under the denim jeans I wore. Neither shoe had a built-up sole or a metal brace attached. Had I been restored? But my hands were not the nineteen-year-old hands that had grasped the steering wheel before the accident. They were the hands of a man in his twenties, a man who had been wrestling with a machine for turning the soil in the backyard.
I looked at Twig and smiled. "A pleasant dream this is," I said.
She nodded. She climbed carefully, putting her bare feet on the tops of the frames holding the earth-turning blades underneath the sledge. She pulled herself up and I loaned her an arm to anchor her efforts. She settled herself into my lap and pulled both my arms around her. "Very pleasant," she said.
I felt the roundness of her bottom against my thighs and the response of my flesh to her warmth, her femaleness. I didn’t want to move for fear I might wake up.
“This is the world of a winter that might have been but will not,” she said. It sounded so matter-of-fact, like a comment about the weather not having turned out as predicted on the news.
I nodded but heard my voice ask, “Why?”
The Pain behind my right eye woke me up. It pushed at my eyeball and worried the nerve like a pit bull with a favorite stick. I waited it out, not moving, ignoring it but also enjoying the feeling of my erection without doing anything to prolong or conclude it.
If I could meet Twig in my dreams every night, I could tolerate The Pain as a minor inconvenience. Somehow, I managed to fall asleep again before morning, The Pain still present but quiet.
I didn’t eat breakfast the next day, or take my medication. The Pain had left me nauseated, unwilling to even try to swallow. No one fussed at me; I was allowed to manage my own life as much as I was able.
Dad and Ellyne left me alone by mid-morning, going on about their lives as they should.
I took the chair out onto the patio and watched my tree, hoping to see Twig appear. I didn’t, but one moment she wasn’t there and the next she was, striding toward me, her long dark hair swaying with her movements.
I decided I had never seen a brown like the color of her hair before. Rich and dark but with hints of gold and bronze, straight as a sunbeam, long enough to touch her thighs when she moved. I loved her hair.
She smiled at me as she got closer, stepping around clods and clumps of grass. “Good morning, Alex,” she called out, loud enough to be heard over the wind that almost always blew in the backyard. “Did you sleep well?”
“You should know,” I said.
She laughed, stopping in front of my chair. Her dress this morning had a leaf motif, glossy leaves in every shade of green and near-green crowded and overlapped each other all down the length of her, stopping just above her naked toes.
I spasmed in my chair, jerking uncontrollably. The seizure The Pain had promised me struck and I cried out without meaning to, my voice rasping, guttural and wordless.
Twig pulled up her skirt and knelt on the would-be lawn in front of my chair, arranging her hem with careless grace. Then she captured my pale violent hands in her own slender olive ones.
I knew this would be a bad one, my body flinging itself from side to side and back and forth, my back arching, heels pressing into the earth, neck bent back over the top of the seat where all I could see was the deep gray un-blue of the autumn sky. I tasted blood in my mouth where I had probably bitten my tongue or cheek.
I made faces at the sky. I barked, I howled. And through it all, feeling the strength of the convulsions ripping at my vitality, with The Pain trying to bore into my brain, I stayed calm inside.
Because I could feel her holding my hands, resisting me as I tugged and pushed at her involuntarily. And I could hear her singing in a language I didn’t understand. Normally, if that’s the word, I lost consciousness during the height of the neural storm, but not this time.
When the seizure died down to mere flinching and random twitches, Twig stood, still holding my hands. Bending over, she kissed me on the forehead. “Not much longer,” she whispered. I thought I felt her breasts against my chest.
And then she was gone.
I had a phone in the pocket of my chair; I only had to press one button on it to dial 911. While the storm of the seizure died down, I managed to do that. A seizure that violent would be followed with another and the medication to prevent it was sitting on the counter in the kitchen, somewhere I might not be able to reach before it happened again.
I tried to speak to the operator who answered but I knew he had not understood me. Still, they had the address on file; they would know what I must be calling about. They would send help.
I tried to turn the chair, making an effort to return to the kitchen where the anti-convulsives lay on the counter beside the big screen remote. I couldn’t get the brake to release; the chair would not move. I twisted my hand so hard against the lever that I felt bones grinding together.
Maybe I should get up and try to walk back to the door, I thought. And as if the thought were an ill-formed deed, I hurled myself out of the chair, turning as I fell so that my head struck the concrete wall.
The Pain behind my eye nova-ed, filling my brain with bright shards of agony. The second seizure had begun and I flopped and floundered on the patio like a gaffed fish. The rawer parts of the concrete tore skin and flesh from my hands and face and I don’t know how many times I struck my head on the fake, pink stone.
I heard a voice and realized that the 911 operator was still listening. “Mr. MacDove?” he called to me. “The ambulance is on its way.”
I wanted to laugh at the common mangling of my name. I wanted to tell him that it was pronounced, “MacDoove,” to rhyme with “hoof.” Horses, not pigeons. That it meant, “Son of the Dark-haired Man,” or perhaps, “Son of the Darkness.”
I remembered Twig telling me not much longer and I hoped, prayed that she was right.
Somehow, I got my feet under me and stood, holding onto the low wall around the patio. But I was going the wrong direction, toward the tree in the backyard instead of the kitchen door. It didn’t seem worthwhile to try to turn around, so I stumbled onward.
I took one step too many after the wall ended and fell full-length on the patchy, failed turf. “Soft,” I thought. At least it was softer than the concrete.
I lay there gasping and choking until I realized that I was laughing. Laughing at my predicament, at the convulsions, at The Pain, laughing at my will to live in spite of everything.
I never knew a thing when the embolism reached my brain except a white light that erased everything I had ever been or ever wanted to be.
I watched them take away the body, pretending in the way that medical professionals have to in such situations, pretending that there might still be life in the husk, still might be hope. They did everything they could but Alex MacDoove was dead.
Ellyne came and stood where Alex had fallen and cried. Then an older man came out of the house, leading her away, speaking softly and compassionately. Alex’s father, I knew.
No one had seen me standing by the rue tree or if they had, they had not reacted to my presence. The leaves of rue are evergreen, dark and glossy. They have a sharp odor when crushed; neither exactly pleasant nor unpleasant to humans though dogs and cats detest the smell.
My dress today was the same color as rue, my hair brown with highlights, my eyes bright hazel with flashes of green. My bare feet and the rest of my skin were the warm olive of Hellas, of the Greek islands and the rest of the Mediterranean shores.
The sun broke through the October overcast, low in the western sky. “Goodbye,” I whispered. “Goodbye to Alex. And gods go with thee to thy rest.”
Then I turned and stepped back into my tree.
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