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This story was originally published in Issue One of Vita & the Woolf Literary and Arts Journal: Published by Elsker Publishing House. Click the cover image to purchase the entire edition. 

Suburban Laureate 


In late September, as the first trace of yellow crept into the edges of the leaves, my father announced to my mother that he’d had enough of that goddamn tree. The oak, its lowest limb stretched encroachingly over the fence, blanketed our front lawn each fall, the coppery brown leaves suddenly becoming my father’s responsibility. He despised the raking, a mere clean-up job in the wake of nature’s careless mess. My brother Tommy and I helped around the yard, of course, but never really finished the job quite to our father’s liking, so he always acted as if the task were entirely his own.

          “Helen is seventy-five, Ray. What do you expect her to do, for Christ’s sake?”

          “Oh, I know. Helen’s a sweetheart” my father said. “I just can’t deal with another year of this. I’m taking that limb down myself.”

          My mother sighed. “Just make sure Helen agrees before you do anything.”

          “Of course,” he said, his voice rising incredulously as he turned and walked away.

          My father loved power tools, especially his chainsaw: a blue Poulin Super XL model with a fourteen-inch bar. He’d bought it two summers earlier to take down the only tree we had in our yard: a Japanese maple, young and angular with scarlet leaves my mother adored.

          “But it’s so pretty,” she said, when my father mentioned removing it.

          “It’s all crooked,” he complained.

          “It’s supposed to be, Ray. That’s what makes it beautiful.”

          “But it’s right in the way out there. What kind of clown would plant a tree right in the middle of the yard?”

          “Maybe someone who enjoyed looking at it through the kitchen window, while they made dinner for their husband and kids every night,” she said. The discussion stopped there, but he felled the maple a few weeks later, when my mother was at her sister’s house.

          “Ray, we talked about this. I told you I loved that tree. Do you just not care at all about what I want?”

         “It was starting to lean,” he said, standing amidst the aftermath, the saw still in his hands, as flakes of fresh maple clung to his shirt, pants, and boots. “Could have fallen any minute.” He said it as if he’d just saved the lives of all the neighborhood children.

          “It was twelve feet tall” she said. “Who exactly was it going to fall on?”

          He shrugged. “Well... it’s down now. That’s the important thing. You’ll thank me later once you see how it opens up the yard.”

          My mother turned, saying nothing, and walked back into the house. She watched through the kitchen window as my father cut the limbs into two-foot lengths and stacked the logs neatly beside the shed. She worked hard that day to hide her anger in front of us, but later that night we heard her muffled voice berating him through the bedroom door. A few months later we burned those same logs in our fire pit, marshmallow and chocolate clinging to our fingers and smeared across our chins as we ate s’mores under the stars. Our mother smiled and laughed with us as sweetly as ever that night, but each time my father put another log on the fire her eyes turned fierce, and the smile faded in the flickering light as if it had never really been there in the first place.

          With Helen’s oak limb as my father’s latest nemesis, he stood on her steps pitching his tall tale of limb sag and root balancing and how it was safer for everyone if the limb came down. My mother listened carefully over the fence, knowing my father would claim permission regardless of what Helen said. When Helen worried about the cost he said “Oh no, Helen, your money’s no good around here. You just leave it to me.”

          “Well, that’s very sweet of you, Raymond. You be careful, though. I don’t want anyone getting hurt on my account.”

          “Don’t you worry one stitch, Helen. I’ve got my best man on it. I’ll even do it when you’re not home, so you don’t have to listen to all the fuss.”

           My mother sighed and shook her head when Helen smiled, waved, and told her she was lucky to have such a man in the house. “Oh yeah,” my mother said.” “He sure is something, isn’t he?’”

           The next morning my father set up his aluminum extension ladder against the trunk of the oak, carefully positioned so he could make his cut while staying safely clear from the swing of the falling limb. He returned to the shed and emerged with a coil of nylon rope slung over his shoulder, gas can in one hand, chainsaw in the other. He set himself up at the base of the tree and sharpened the chain meticulously, almost ceremoniously, each pass of the file a gentle calling to the neighborhood. He adjusted the ladder one last time, clanging the aluminum against the tree loudly enough to disturb anyone he hadn’t yet disturbed.

          “Whatcha got goin’ on over there, Ray? A bit of lumberjackin?” My father turned to see our neighbor, Bernard Harris, wiping his hands on a rag. He’d been waxing his van across the street and came over after hearing the commotion.

          “Oh hey, Bernie. I’m just taking this limb down for Helen.”

          “That limb?” Bernie asked, pointing. “What for?”

          “It’s in rough shape,” my father said, not looking up from his task. “Dangerous, you know? Don’t want any of the kids getting hurt.”

          “I don’t know,” Bernie said, cocking his head to one side to get a better view. “Looks pretty healthy, bright leaves and such. Probably look real nice in a few weeks when the leaves start to pop.”

          “It has to come down,” my father insisted. “Helen asked me to do it. I’m just helping her out of respect.” Bernie looked past my father at the empty driveway next door.

          “Is Helen even home?” he asked.

          “She’s out. Says the saw’s too loud for her ears.”

          “Boy, she’s right about that. Those things can really stir up a neigh—”

          “Bernie, do you mind?” His irritation grew as the line of questioning carried on. He wanted an audience, not an inquisition. “You just finish waxing your van, and I’ll take care of this limb.”

          “Hey,” Bernie said, hands raised in defense, “fine by me. Just be careful, my friend.” He turned and walked back across the street as my father gassed up the saw.

          He primed the motor, set the choke, and started the saw with a single pull of the cord. Blue smoke flowed from the exhaust as he squeezed the throttle a couple times to warm it up, one last announcement to the neighborhood that the show was about to begin. He ascended the ladder, carefully, one rung at a time, and pulled the idling saw up to himself with the rope.

            Seconds later, my father was basking in the spotlight of his suburban dad glory. The grinding wail of the saw’s motor echoed through the neighborhood as the chain ripped through the wood, flakes of oak showering down as neighbors gathered to watch.  And then, a single clink, a quick surge of the motor, and the collective gasp of the surrounding crowd as the chain bound up, kicked back, and tore into the flesh of my father’s forearm. A pink spray washed over the grey shingles of Helen’s house. The motor stalled as the chain cut deep into his arm, stopping just before the bone. My father dropped the saw and, legs splayed, slid down the ladder.

          “Grab my arm” he said to me in a panic. “Put pressure on it, as much as you can.” I gripped his forearm, squeezing the torn flesh together as the scene around us swirled in chaos. Blood seeped between my fingers, soaking the flannel of his sleeve. “Harder,” he said to me. “Squeeze it as hard as you can.”  Parents ushered their kids away. My mother came rushing out of the house to see what happened.

          “Oh my God. Ray, what... Somebody call 911!” She grabbed my brother Tommy and pushed him behind her to shield him from the scene.

          Bernie’s van charged up onto the lawn beside us. He jumped out and pulled open the sliding door. “Quick, get him in. No time to wait on that ambulance. You keep pressure on that arm,” he said to me. “You think you can do that?” I nodded but wasn’t entirely sure.

          “He can do it,” my father said. “I need help, though.” I held tight to my father’s arm while Bernie helped him into the van and slid the door shut behind us and hopped into the driver’s seat.

          He spoke to my mother through the window. “I’ll get your husband to that hospital in no time, ma’am. It’s gonna be all right.” We pulled off the lawn and over the curb then tore down the street leaving the onlookers behind.

          “Boy, you really did a number on yourself there, Ray.” Bernie spoke calmly as he careened through traffic, waving off the other cars, leaning on the horn and beating every red light in town. My father, now in shock, did not answer. He sat, motionless, eyes closed, head against the side of the van. Bernie looked at me through the rearview. “Like I said son, keep the pressure on that arm.”

          We screeched to a halt at the emergency entrance, and Bernie ran inside, returning seconds later with a wheelchair. We clumsily helped my father into the seat. Smears of blood stained the floor of the van, but I’d held enough pressure on the wound to keep it from pooling up too badly. “You stay here,” Bernie said as he turned back to me. I’ll get your dad inside and then we’ll get you home to take care of your mother.” He held tight to my father’s arm with one hand and wheeled him through the automatic glass doors, The beginnings of a yell were cut off by the doors closing behind him. The wheelchair was quickly surrounded by people in white coats and who ushered him away.


          A week later, my mother brought my father home from the hospital, arm heavily bandaged and suspended by a sling. He struggled getting out of the car and she hurried around to help him stand. Across the street, Bernie poked his head out from under the hood of his van.

          “Hey there neighbor!” he shouted with a wave. “Glad to see you on the mend!” My father barely managed to give him a nod.

          “You could be a bit more courteous to the guy,” my mother said quietly as she smiled and waved to Bernie. “He probably saved your life, you know.” My father merely grunted, not wanting to admit she was right, that he’d screwed up and in a foolish attempt at being the neighborhood hero, landed himself in this position which had almost cost him everything.

         He looked up at Helen’s limb, still hanging sturdily despite the partial cut he’d made a week earlier. The autumn wind shifted, and a scattering of leaves unhinged themselves one by one. He watched as the leaves swirled down in the capricious breeze and settled into the tire grooves left by Bernie’s van, a reminder of his hubris, and a now permanent part of our once meticulous lawn.

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