Wordy Wednesday: What to Do About the Crab Apple Tree

Before anything else, listen to this song:

My favorite part is Ansel Elgort (Gus)’s creeper smile at 1:12.

So much TFIOS (The Fault In Our Stars) stuff releasing lately! I’m beyond pumped for this movie.

In Boring Julia Life Stuff, I found out yesterday that I finally need to get my bottom wisdom teeth out. (The oral surgeon says I’ve still got another couple years to hang onto the top ones.) Of course, because I’m traveling the majority of this summer, the only time that works to dig the suckers out of my jaw is this Friday morning. So, wish me luck. (Especially because they say you’re supposed to not consume dairy products for at least twenty four hours post-surgery and I’m pretty sure I don’t eat anything that’s NOT dairy.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a short story I wrote for my creative writing class fall semester, called “What to Do About the Crab Apple Tree.”

The faded wicker porch swing rests so high, I barely have to crouch to slide onto it beside Gemma. My toes graze the cement while the sloped roof of the porch angles the last rays of sunlight into a beam that hits me straight in the eyes.

Gemma shifts over, makes space, and keeps her gaze concentrated on the scraggly old crab apple tree that is dead center in the front lawn. She squeezes her lips together so hard they turn white. Her fingers have long since tangled themselves in her lap, skin tan against the peachy pink, bunched-up fabric of the shorts my mom picked out for her this morning.

She doesn’t look away from the branches, the ripening apples, as she says, “I don’t want to talk, you know.”

I stare down at my own hands. Pick at a hangnail. “I know.”

A smudge of dirt has lingered under my right thumbnail for the past hour, but I don’t feel the need to scrape it out. The realtor had Uncle Bill and me tear up all the dandelions and Queen Anne’s Lace in the backyard today—said it would increase the cottage’s value.

Gemma is the cleanest thing I’ve seen since breakfast. The backyard is nothing but dirt and grass seed now.

It’s good Grandpa doesn’t have to see it this way.

Gemma glances at me out the corner of her eye—such a small movement I nearly miss it with the sunset in my face. Her dark eyes are ringed with a red so thick and bright it could pass as a ghastly shade of eyeliner, if it weren’t for the dark drips of makeup caught on her cheeks.

“Why are you here, then?” she asks.

I shrug. “I don’t want to talk either. So I figured, if we’re both going to be spending the evening avoiding the rest of the Walberg Clan’s motor mouths, we might as well do it together.”

She nods once, curtly. I press my toes against the warm cement of the porch and shove us backward.
The swing sways halfheartedly. The sunset dips in and out of view.

The sky is a mess of gold, pink, and orange streaks that dance above the Robinsons’ cottage across the road as we move. Their garage door is open, and through it I can just make out the little speedboat they take out on the lake every Sunday, and sometimes Friday or Saturday. The blackberry bushes lining the garage are so heavy with fruit, I can nearly taste Mrs. Robinson’s buttery, sour Fourth of July blackberry pie just by looking at them. The back of my throat aches.

Gemma asks, “What do you think is going to happen to the crab apple tree?”

“I don’t know. My mom talked about cutting it down.” I shrug again.

The air is so entirely still, I can’t see a single leaf or twig rustle, even with the tree just a stone’s throw away. The sunset has turned its leaves a deep, murky green, like unpolished emeralds.

It’s an eyesore if I’ve ever seen one, with branches that bow under onion-shaped fruit and a hacked-up trunk set at the same angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s been too droopy to read under since I was ten, and too weak to climb since Gemma turned twelve, but Grandpa loved that dumb tree.

Gemma’s tangled fingers squeeze together. The baby blue polish is chipped on three of the nails of her left hand. She scratches one nail against the other and another flake slips off.

My own nails are unpainted, uneven. I still don’t bother about the dirt.

“I don’t want them to cut it down.” Gemma’s words are quiet—said to the porch at large, rather than me.

“I know.”

“What do you think about the tree?”

I push the swing back again, this time harder. We sway towards the cottage, then forward all the way to the lip of the porch. If I jumped from here, I’d have half a second of flight before my heels made contact with the yellow, waterlogged grass of late June. I wrap my fingers around the armrest.

“I don’t know. My mom’s right. The tree’s useless.” A splinter catches against my palm. “And the realtor already made it clear she doesn’t want anything eccentric left by the time the cottage goes on the market.”

“I can’t believe we sold the old piano.” Gemma closes her eyes and runs two fingers over the streaks of makeup beneath them. The black smudges, widens.

Grandpa used to play Christmas songs on the piano after dinner in the middle of July, when the lake water was just the right depth to go fishing, and we had bass for dinner two or three times a week, the same meal and songs and family members gathered around the long, homemade oak table every July since before Gemma was even born. Grandpa used to sit whoever was the smallest and least squirmy on his lap, and have us slide our fingers overtop his so that we helped him press the keys as he played, and the entire family sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Silent Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during the hottest month of the year.

“The piano needed repairs,” I say. “More than any of us could afford. And who was going to take it? Your family and Aunt Maggie already have pianos, and our apartment can barely fit the five of us, let alone that massive thing.”

“I know why we sold it.” Gemma rubs her eyes, then pushes a hand through her straight black hair. “I just can’t believe we did.”

“It was necessary.” It’s not what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say anything else.

“I know.”

“It still sucks.”

She slides her fingers through her hair; works on untangling it. The sky fades from pink to purple to that dim, empty color that perfectly matches the hue of a deep tissue bruise, the same exact shade of navy blue as blossomed across my left shoulder three years ago, the day we realized the crab apple tree was no longer strong enough to climb.

A new streak of mascara joins the mess on Gemma’s cheeks. The porch light flickers to life.

I lick my lips. They’re cracked and hard and taste like salt mixed with the sharp tang of orange juice. I wonder how red my face is, after this morning’s crying and the afternoon spent pulling weeds in the sun.

Gemma watches the crab apple tree. I glance at her, then at the yard.

A fat, chestnut brown squirrel darts across the lawn and shimmies up the tree. It perches on a branch to sniff at one of the red-purple fruit, and the branch dips all the way to the ground in an impressive display of weak wood and flexibility. A laugh works its way to my throat, but doesn’t pass my lips. Pressure grows behind my eyes.

“Grandpa would be pissed if he knew we were even considering cutting down his tree,” I say.

Gemma nods. “Let’s not forget how he and Grandma grew that tree with,” she affects a warbled, gravelly voice, “‘nothing but a shovel, a shriveled up crab apple found in the cottage’s garage when they first moved in, and a whole lot of love.’”

The laugh escapes before I remember to hold it in. Gemma sniffles and smiles. She folds her hands in her lap, displaying only the fingers with un-chipped nail polish.

Plates and silverware clatter in the cottage behind us as the Walberg Clan sets the long, homemade oak table for dinner. Aunt Jean, Uncle Ron, and my dad laugh over place settings while my mom and Uncle Bill argue about what to put on the salad, the way they always have—according to Grandpa—since they were children.

Grandpa probably ate a couple hours ago, since they try to serve dinner at five o’clock sharp at the Center Town Nursing Home. He’s probably asleep by now, leathery, wrinkled skin slack across his forehead while his nose rattles in that whistling snore that we used to tell the little kids was secretly the hoot of an owl loose in the bedrooms.

When we visit Grandpa in the morning, as we do every morning, he won’t remember if it was strained peas or blackberry pie or bass that the nurses served him, or if he enjoyed it or hated it or didn’t really notice it. He won’t remember if it’s June or July or December, and he won’t remember if I’m Gemma or Addie or Helen, or one of his grandchildren at all.

He will never know if we cut down the crab apple tree; he won’t know if the new owners do it after they sign the paperwork and we hand over the keys. He will never know if anything happens to that straggly old tree that he does not remember even a little, yet we cannot cut down the crab apple tree, because Grandpa once loved it, and we loved him.

He might as well be dead, he is so far gone.

“It’s weird,” I say, “being here without him.”

Gemma pushes against the cement, setting us rocking again. “I don’t like it.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to.”

“I miss him.” She bites her lip. The blood drains from her fingers as she squeezes them together.

“I know.” I stretch my legs out. The evening air breathes over my toes, like a whisper. I close my eyes—make a wish on the crab apple tree. A burst of laughter comes from behind us. “I do too.”

“Everyone keeps acting like this is normal, Grandpa getting old and forgetting everything. But how can it be normal?” Gemma inhales on a hiccup. “He was the most abnormal person I’ve ever known.”

I nod and smile a little, opening my eyes. I turn to her. “I thought you didn’t want to talk.”

“I don’t.” She says it to her shorts.

“I don’t either.”

Gemma scoots across the porch swing, pressing her leg against mine, and rests her forehead on my shoulder. I rest my head on top of hers. We breathe in, breathe out.

The squirrel leaps from the crab apple tree and trundles away across the grass. A light flips on in the Robinsons’ cottage—through the sheer lace curtains, I watch as Mrs. Robinson gets started on dinner.

Life goes on. Even as one life ends, the rest of it goes on.

I slip the nail of my left pointer finger beneath the edge of my right thumbnail and push out the dirt. Inside the cottage, Mom calls Uncle Bill a jerk, and he complains about how she never lets him put pine nuts on the salad, and my little brother Tony says something in his loud, squeaky voice that makes Dad boom with laughter.

“I don’t want to leave,” I say.

Gemma replies, “I think we should keep the crab apple tree.”

She looks at me, and I look back. I’m not sure which of us begins to cry first.




PS. Mi madre turned another year better recently. Happy birthday to the most wonderful mom in the world!

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