Finn looked up as his wife walked into the kitchen, a stack of dinner plates in her hands. There was an almost imperceptible thud of the closing door and the whisper of her bare feet as she crossed the expanse of tile. Securing the plastic wrap over the remainder of their dinner, he slid the container into the refrigerator. As the door closed, he brushed his hands across the denim of his pants and cleared his throat in a slight syncopated sound. “It was nice of your parents to bring us dinner. Wasn’t it, Bree?”
“Yes, very nice.” Breena set the stack of dishes into the sink. Turning on the faucet, she measured out a few drops of liquid soap on a sponge. The bright light from the overhead fixture haloed around her in Madonna-like softness. Several strands of hair had escaped the confines of her bun creating a curtain of darkness against her translucent skin. She pushed them back with her forearm, but they refused to stay in place.
“Your mom’s pot roast was delicious.”
“It always is.” Breena’s reply was muffled by the rumble and spray of water running into the sink. Delicate blue veins stood in stark relief against the paleness of her skin as she scrubbed the sponge across each dish. The sponge circled the plate, erasing every speck of food.
“And her twice baked potatoes—”
“They were good, too.”
Finn joined Breena at the sink, leaning the weight of his hip against the cold granite of the counter. He stared out the window into the empty darkness. “Your dad seems to be enjoying his retirement.”
“He suggested that I join him for golf next week.”
“That would be nice.”
Finn reached out to touch her shoulder, then let it drop to his side. “Bree?”
“Would you like help with the dishes?”
“No. Thank you.”
He shifted toward her. “You can wash and I can load the dishwasher, just like we used to do it.”
She shifted away. “That’s okay. I can finish the dishes.”
“Or I can do them and you can keep your parents—”
Finn stopped mid-sentence at the sharp crack of a plate against the stainless steel of the sink. He glanced towards the living room door, his feet shuffling back a few steps.
It was several moments before he spoke again. “It was really nice of your parents to bring us dinner.”
“Should I make coffee to go with dessert?” He was already moving towards the coffee pot on the other side of the kitchen.
“If you would like.” Breena continued to rinse the plates and utensils before loading them into the dishwasher. Glasses and plates were lined up like soldiers standing at attention.
We should get a new dishwasher,” Finn said, as he measured coffee grounds into the thin paper filter. A few spilled onto the counter and he brushed them aside. “It’s silly that we have to wash the dishes twice. I’ll check the sale ads, maybe I can find a good deal.”
“I don’t mind.”
“All the same, maybe—”
Breena added a detergent pod then snapped the door closed. “It’s fine, Finn. I don’t want a new dishwasher.” Her staccato reply was punctuated by the whirl and whoosh of water filling the machine.
Finn finished filling the reservoir with water and replaced the carafe. Within seconds, the coffee pot began to gurgle. Finn inhaled, pulling the pungent, earthy aroma of coffee deep into his lungs. “It was really nice of your parents to bring us dinner.”
“If I say yes, can you please stop talking about the dinner?”
His eyes cut to hers. “I was just saying that it was a nice gesture.”
She looked away. “Can we talk about something else?”
He opened his mouth to say something then closed it. After a second he asked, “Should we have the cake you made for dessert?”
“That would be fine.”
“We could have something else. I think there are cook—”
“The cake is fine.” Drying her hands on a dishtowel, Breena walked the few steps to the refrigerator.
He moved toward her. “I can get it for you.”
Breena shook her head at his offer, several more strands of hair escaping the confines of her bun. She pushed them behind her ears. “That’s not necessary.”
The plate tipped slightly as she lifted it from the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Smears of chocolate marred the frosted surface of the plate.
Finn saw Breena struggling to balance the cake as she tried to close the refrigerator door. He was by her side in a second. “Here. Let me help you.” Finn reached out to take the plate from her hands.
She pulled back. “No, I have it.”
“It’s not that heavy.” She tightened her grip on the plate.
“But the doctor said that you’re not supposed to be lift—”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“No! Let go!”
With a sharp yank, Breena wrenched the plate from his hands. Cake and glass exploded as the plate hit the wall with enough force to dent the dry wall. Raspberry filling splashed across the walls and tile in pools of dark red.
Silence filled the kitchen as Finn and Breena stared down at the mess. Tears flooded Breena’s eyes and streamed down her cheeks like rivers bursting free of their dams. Her breath caught in her chest, then hitched as her shoulders began to shake as she dropped to her knees. Shards of glass etched deep gouges into her palm as she scooped up handfuls of the cake as if trying to put it back together.
“Bree, stop. Bree. You’re bleeding. Stop. Please, stop.” Finn’s voice was hoarse as he knelt next to her, taking hold of her arms and trying to pull her hands away from the glass.
“It’s such a mess. I made such a mess.” She looked towards the kitchen door. “My parents —”
“No,” she struggled against him. “Let me go. I have to fix it. I have to fix it. I have to fix —”
Tears fell from Finn’s eyes as Breena’s voice broke on another sob. He pulled her even closer against the solid frame of his body as tears soaked through his shirt. His cheek pressed against the softness of her hair, his arms around her limp body. “You can’t, Bree. There’s nothing left to fix.
Every time she thought about the Taylors she blinked away her tears. She first met them at the Church of the Holy Saviour. Janine and Mike Taylor had the kind of empathy she had been looking for her entire life. They understood her. After all, their own daughter, Samantha, had suffered from anorexia, and the Lord and one Leah Feldsheim – an Internet therapist - had cured their “Sammy.”
“Maggie, you should have seen our poor daughter,” said Janine, after a church service. “I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of young girls with anorexia, those bony faces, skinny arms without an ounce of flesh on them, waiting, like Karen Carpenter, for a stroke or heart attack to bring down their young lives.”
Maggie nodded. And managed a twisted little smile. “The exact opposite of me. The blimp.”
“We’d like to help you,” said the husband Mike, a handsome athletic-looking man. He proposed that Maggie move out of the trailer park where she lived with her alcoholic mother and drug-addicted sister, and come live with them.
Maggie couldn’t believe her good fortune.
The Taylors moved her out of the Red Robin Mobile Home Park. Maggie scribbled a note to her family, stating she would be in touch later on. The Taylors led the way home in their blue Kia van, while Maggie followed in her battered old white Toyota with a bumper sticker reading “Jesus is Coming.”
Maggie drummed her hands on the steering wheel, a bundle of nerves, as she escaped her tormenters - her family. She had to change now. The Good Lord and the Taylors were taking over. Her binge eating had only worsened over the years, forcing her to quit her job as an aide in an assisted living facility. All she could focus on was her incessant need to stuff herself.
The Taylors set her up in the guest bedroom with its white snowflake-patterned bedspread on the double bed. They gently laid her laptop on the mahogany-brown Ethan Allen desk and plugged its snake-like black cord.
Then she felt it, like a tickle in the back of her throat. She said not a word, but her heart began to beat faster and faster. She clutched it, thinking of Karen Carpenter. Dead at thirty-two. What would the Internet therapist Leah Feldsheim want her to do? She already knew.
She needed to relax. She had just started the 10-session class – using an easy payment plan that would take her 18 months to pay off - and practiced her breath – in and out, in and out - as she sat on her new bed.
In and out, slowly, in and out, slowly. It was so simple. So relaxing. It worked!
The Taylors both had teaching jobs at the University of Pennsylvania and would be gone most of the day. Maggie would cook for them, making the healthy foods she must train her mind to swallow slowly and give up the binge eating that Leah Feldsheim promised would become a thing of the past.
Maggie explored her new bedroom. A hated mirror shone over a bureau. Do not look in the mirror, she warned herself, then slyly looked up and saw the huge moon-shaped face.
The awful words slipped from her mouth. “You fat bitch!”
What Christian would say a thing like this? Well, her family members would. She cupped her hands about her round face. As a child, her father – who left the family when she was ten – told her how beautiful she was, calling her, “My little angel.” And meant it.
Exhausted though she was, she wandered onto the front porch of the yellow house. The waning rays of the sun bathed her and the flowers on the porch.
And then she saw it! How was it she hadn’t noticed before? The Taylors had inadvertently brought her into the abyss of temptation.
On the busy street below them was a Dairy Queen. She stared hard and then rushed into the house.
“Damnation!” she thought.
When Maggie awoke the next morning it took her a few moments to get her bearings. As always, the first thing she did was to feel her face, then raise her chubby little arms in the air and stare at them. Aha, she remembered. She was with her new family. The Taylors. Apparently, they’d taken an early train downtown for their teaching positions. How inferior she felt, no surprise, and dumb – she was living with sophisticated college profs – and her will power was up for grabs. Did she or did she not possess any? The Lord, the Taylors and Leah Feldsheim were on her side. A mighty team, she tried to convince herself.
She rummaged about in the kitchen, finally deciding on two English muffins with butter and strawberry jam. She flattened the two muffins in her hands and slipped them into the toaster. She put the white skillet on the gas stove, sprinkled it with olive oil, then cracked two eggs inside and began swirling them with a wooden spatula. The muffins smelled scrumptious even with their little burnt smell from the toaster.
Carefully balancing her breakfast in her arms, she took it outside onto the front porch. The sun brushed her eyes as she sat down on a white wicker chair with a little table in front.
“Thank you, Jesus,” she muttered, as she took her seat. What could be more delicious than eggs, she thought, as she looked at the incredible view below her. The yellow house was perched on a high hill, close by the neighbors, who apparently had all gone to work. She caressed her chunky upper arms as she swallowed her omelet. Yes, there was plenty of flesh on each arm. She so wanted a man to love her. Like her daddy had, though his “little angel” must have done something terribly wrong for him to leave her. What would he think of his girl, now? Now that she was a grown woman, twenty-two years old. And – fat.
After she washed the dishes, she changed into her walking clothes to explore the neighborhood. Inevitably, as she knew she would, she found herself walking into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. Back at the trailer park there were all sorts of ice cream parlors but not a single Dairy Queen. As she approached the counter, she felt her stomach flapping as if a gallon of pickle juice was inside her huge pair of khaki shorts. She stood and stared at the colorful menu. People were starting to gather as it was lunch time already. Standing back she moved her eyes from the menu to the people – an assortment of whites, blacks, skinny folks and fat folks with huge butts – at least hers wasn’t all that fat – and listened as they ordered.
She stared at a large life-like picture of a chili dog covered with cheese. She hadn’t known what it was until someone spoke the words. She made a mental note never to order one. She watched as another hot dog item was delivered in a little paper pouch to a thin woman in orange shorts. My goodness, she thought, this hot dog had so much on top - onions, sauerkraut, ketchup, mustard and relish – it was a miracle it didn’t spill all over the sidewalk. It did smell heavenly and Maggie promised herself never to order this either.
A woman she recognized as one of her neighbors, a black woman with long dreadlocks, ordered something called a Pecan Mudslide. Maggie hadn’t realized she was staring at her neighbor with her mouth wide open.
“Try one, hun,” said the neighbor. “Take a taste with the red spoon.”
The neighbor asked for another red spoon and insisted Maggie have a taste.
Maggie dipped the spoon into the top, into the vanilla ice cream and two sugar-coated pecans drenched with hot fudge. She lost all self-consciousness as she swooned over this – what was it called again? – oh, Pecan Mudslide.
After swallowing, she licked all around her lips, and asked her neighbor if her lips were clean.
“You’re fine, girl,” the neighbor smiled. “C’mon and sit on my front porch tonight,” she said. “We wanna get to know you.” Maggie thanked her and told her she’d be there.
The steep hill felt good as she walked back home, her thigh muscles stretching, and feeling so proud of herself. She had ordered nothing. Not one unhealthy delicious morsel. Out of breath, she sat on her front porch, or, rather, theTaylors’ front porch, and looked at the view. Well, not the entire view. Her eyes fastened on the DQ, as if it were a stage set and the gathering line of cars that pulled in. Further down the road was a gas station with bright red lights flashing the gas prices. What she missed, she suddenly realized, was land. The green grass that was all around the trailer park.
On her sixth birthday her father had given her a Cinderella watch. Over the years, she had the band expanded and still wore it upon occasion. She went into the house and dug it out of one of her suitcases. She would need all her strength to stop her eating, so why not wear it as a talisman? Cinderella had shoulder-length curly auburn hair and a puffy blue dress. She fondled the watch on her wrist and looked about the kitchen. Time to make dinner.
Unlike the trailer, this Grant Avenue house had many rooms. Too many, in fact. Who needed them all? You could eat in the formal dining room, with two candlestick holders on the paisley tablecloth, and a huge air conditioning unit blocking the window. Or you could eat in the kitchen with its immaculate white linoleum, which meant that she, Maggie, must keep it clean. Hard, though, for a fatty to get down on her hands and knees and scrub, but it must be done. Of course, after she’d dropped sixty pounds there would be no problem at all.
The pork chops had defrosted in the fridge, so she fried some up in the skillet. At the nursing home she’d learned to cook with herbs, which she selected from the seasonings cabinet, though she intended to plant her own in this great new house. Mashed potatoes were next on the list. Bustling about, clanging and clattering, she peeled the taters, brought them to a boil in a copper-bottomed saucepan, then mashed them with a special potato masher. She added salt and pepper and a couple pinches of cheddar cheese which melted nicely.
Janine and Mike Taylor greeted her warmly and sat down at the dinner table. They all held hands and said grace. Maggie bowed her head while remembering the Pecan Mudslide, and tried to enjoy the dinner. She did not. Obsession had overtaken her. While chomping on the pork chops, she imagined ordering the Pecan Mudslide with the red spoon jabbed into it. She was so upset she forgot to meet her neighbor on the front porch. The neighbor came calling.
“Did you forget about me?” she asked.
“Oh, not at all,” said the startled Maggie. “Be there after I do the dishes.”
The sun was beginning to set when Maggie joined Danielle’s family on the front porch. With a huge sigh, she lowered herself onto a rocker as she was introduced to Tiffany, Earl and Keisha.
“Love your hair,” Maggie said to Tiffany.
“Go ahead, touch it,” said Tiffany, who bent down so Maggie could touch her exotic braids.
The new friendship flourished and Maggie hoped they hadn’t noticed she’d gained a good ten pounds. She also knew the DQ counter people. And copiously thanked them for introducing her to the Chili Cheese Hot Dog, the dogs with sauerkraut, onions and mustard, and the spectacular desserts: Peanut Buster Sundae, Pecan Mudslide, and Triple Chocolate Brownie.
Forgotten was her Internet advisor Feldsheim, whose first name she couldn’t remember, and stopped that ridiculous in-and-out breathing exercise.
Who said she had to lose weight anyway? Wasn’t life for enjoyment? She knew her Bible. Knew that Ecclesiastes the Preacher from the Old Testament had commanded people to enjoy life, “to eat, drink and be glad.”
At the dinner table one night, Janine complimented Maggie on her salad.
“No one knows how to fix a better salad than you do, Dear,” she said, interrupting Maggie’s reverie. “Whatever do you put in the dressing?”
Maggie paused and in the nick of time remembered the question.
“Oh, it’s easy,” said Maggie. “I use Paul Newman’s Salad Dressing but sprinkle my own rosemary and tarragon on top. I bought the plants at Kremp Florist over on Davisville Road.”
She explained the plants basked in the sunlight on the back stairs.
“That Kremp’s is really something,” she said remembering the nice woman Monica, who’d worked there for years.
“Ah, yes,” said Mike Taylor. “It’s right next door to the train station.”
They asked her if there was anything else they might do for her.
Maggie decided to speak up about her idea.
“Well, it’s an idea I’ve had for a while.”
“I’d like to get a job. I promise it won’t interfere with my cooking and cleaning the house.”
The Taylors agreed it was a wonderful idea and bandied about some job suggestions.
“Well,” said Maggie. “I will pray about it.”
As Maggie got ready for bed, she noticed two things lying on her bedside table. One was her Cinderella watch; the other, the red spoon from the Dairy Queen.
The next day, Maggie woke up and thanked the Lord for the idea he sent as she lay in bed studying her chubby freckled arms. She was so excited she only ate one omelet, no English muffin or rye toast, and bided her time untilnoon.
At the appointed hour, she was the first one at the Dairy Queen, running down the hill, knees bent, and reported to the counter. Mark would be there, she knew. The night before they had a talk about the new Triple-Fudge Brownie. Bending his head down so she could see his bald pate, glasses and smile, he told her that, as manager, he was required to install a seven-thousand dollar machine to make the brownies. He was just getting the hang of it, he had told her.
“I’m going to ‘like’ you on Facebook,” she said.
“Oh, we’ll appreciate that, Maggie,” he had told her.
Then, as the regulars were lining up behind her, she popped the question.
“Mark, please, pretty please, may I work here?”
His eyes grew wide.
“I don’t see why not.” He disappeared from the window and came back with a handful of paperwork. “Fill these out,” he said, “and I’ll interview you when the lunch crowd is over.”
Maggie took the papers, a black Bic pen, and clipboard, and sat over on a bench.
Her fingers quickly filled out the forms, as she listened to people ordering favorite items. Orange Julius. What on earth was that? Or a Cotton Candy Blizzard? She remembered carnivals her family attended during the summer and the miracle of pink cotton candy seemingly spun from pink spider webs. Undoubtedly, working at the DQ, she’d get a nice discount and try, well, everything. After all, it was imperative, wasn’t it, so she could advise her customers.
Mark knew where to find her. She sat, wearing a lovely green and white caftan – a tent - that covered her body from the neck on down to her mid-calf. The cars on York Road swooshed by or stopped at the light. She was oblivious. Yes, he would hire her. Minimum wage, but she could advance, he said, and become assistant manager or transfer to another store, and advance there.
“But we’ll take it one day at a time,” said Mark, unaware that he’d spoken the mantra of The 12-Step Program for the millions of addicts world wide. She would start the very next day at noon. She would “shadow” him during her five-hour shift.
What surprised her the most the next afternoon were all the birds that hung around, squawking and begging, pecking at chocolate dabs on the sidewalk.
She was a quick learner and in no time knew each of the dozens of DQ products, the sizes of the plastic containers, as well as their prices. She had a lovely sweet smile for everybody, especially little children, whose moms held them up to the counter.
She even had offers from male customers, some attractive, to go out for dinner.
“Do you like Italian food?” asked one Eddie, who always arrived at 1:30 pm on the dot with his blue backpack strapped on.
“Sure, Eddie,” she replied. “Just give me a couple of weeks and I’d love to go out with you.”
She’d donned the red DQ T-shirt – the largest size – so Eddie had no idea how big she really was – and hoped to have lost some of her weight when they got together. Ever the optimist, her face would light up when he ordered his perfectly unhealthy lunches.
Within three weeks – for that’s how long it took – Maggie had joined the “I Hate DQ Club” – which every single employee belonged to – and would rather be run over by a truck than eat anything made by Dairy Queen. Her weight plummeted every week. She felt sorry for the bluejays, crows, mourning doves and other birds who might die of coronary disease, their once trim bodies taking on the disease states of obese Americans. Birds with high cholesterol. God bless them, she thought.
“Thank you, Jesus,” she muttered at work, as she spun the Orange Julius in the thousand-dollar blender. The smell nauseated her. And waited patiently for Eddie to show up. Her khaki shorts now resembled a skirt and she imagined Eddie ordering a table for two at the Willow Inn just up the hill. She would wear her Cinderella watch for good luck.
What Cline Phillips liked most about Buttermaker’s Café was the way they prepared their chicken-fried steak. The thick batter crumbled onto the plate, some of it even popping and flying onto the paper placemat, as he cut through it with his fork. Many people wondered how the cooks were able to do it, create a steak so tender you could cut it with a fork. “Have to hit the damn cow with a Mack truck to get a steak like that,” Cline would tell people who were about to order but couldn’t reach a decision. And if they came in unsure of the menu (usually tourists), Cline would offer his recommendation as he sopped up his yellow runny eggs with a hunk of steak, flecks of batter clinging to those strands of mustache hanging over his lips.
He looked like he would have been in his element firing a six-shooter beside Wyatt Earp, but he was born eighty-nine years too late for that kind of thing. Instead, he became a man ushered into the world with an axe and a chainsaw and a red gas can with a yellow nozzle. His mustache more than made up for the thinning hair on his scalp, wisps of it sticking straight up as if to catch the morning sun streaming through the café window. Some people bristled when he spoke to them, this random local stranger in a sap-stained flannel shirt. Others smiled and whispered around the table about how much they liked this mountain lifestyle; the people were so friendly.
Cline came to Buttermaker’s whenever he was headed into the woods, at least three times a week, or so. He ordered his chicken-fried steak with his eggs over-easy, a side of home-style potatoes that paired well with ketchup, and drank his coffee with three little packets of half-and-half whose residence had been in the Café’s refrigerator up until the moment Cline ordered his coffee. The half-and-half cooled his coffee to milky perfection, enough so he could sip, but not slurp. When he pulled the mug away from his lips, his mustache hair would clump together, dripping onto the table before he could wipe it away with a napkin. The waitresses teased him about how he could eat the same thing as often as he did and still stay skinny. When they did this, Cline shuffled his Redwing boots nervously under the table and smiled back at them. He didn’t say much to them.
He had at one time.
But not anymore.
Cline always paid with cash. When he finished his meal, he tried to make his place as clean as possible, stacking auxiliary dishes onto his plate and wiping away crumbs into his hand. He left a good tip, a sizable tip, for his waitress, regardless of who she was. They thought that by flirting with him they encouraged a generous fare, but really he just knew most of them needed it and was content letting them assume what they wanted.
What Cline Phillips liked most about the forest was the way the trees swayed in an afternoon breeze. After he felled a tree and took it home in rounds, he drove back out to that day’s work site, sat against a Jeffrey pine or a lodgepole and watched the tops of the trees. They looked like dancers, awkward partners who found their rhythm in being out of synch. There’s that static shhh as the wind whistled through the pine needles. Captivating. Like whispers. At times he believed those stories about ol’ Stan Jorgensen speaking with ghosts in the forest, though for the most part it was a bunch of superstitious horse shit. The man just had an eye for picking out trees about to turn, better than most folks.
Sometimes, when Cline was watching the forest canopy, there was no breeze. Not always, but sometimes. And when that happened it felt like the world had gone silent. No birds chirping, no ground squirrels running around, no mule deer tiptoeing through the thicket. At the right time of the year, not even a fly or a mosquito buzzed past his face, and Cline was overcome with a profound sense of loneliness, as if he were the last person on Earth.
And the trees, and the grass, and the afternoon sun.
In those moments, he would take up residency in a thick patch of trees, where the dead branches and pinecones littered the ground. He would pick up a stick and, with his knife, whittle the end of it down until it was barely a nub, the curled shavings littered around his feet. He didn’t understand the desire to do this, only that in some way it made him feel slightly in control of something beyond himself.
By evening, Cline’s stomach would begin to rumble, his lunch having worn off and his country-fried steak long since digested. He’d climb into his truck intent on dinner or a snack before crawling into bed.
What Cline Philips didn’t like was the silence of his home swallowing the sound of his footsteps. There was no echo with each thud of his boots. It wasn’t just his footsteps, though; his entire presence seemed to be lost in the quiet. He imagined himself a stone cast onto the glassy surface of a lake, devoured by the inky depths of the water, but no ripple formed when he broke the surface. It remained smooth and untouched. His keys jingled for a moment when they were hung on the wall in the entry way, but then rested still, all alone on an otherwise blank space. The doors creaked when opened, as did the doorknobs when turned, then remained a passageway to yet another empty room.
On cold evenings, Cline brought in split logs, one-quarter of a round, and got a fire going. The smell of sulfur permeated the chilled air when the matchhead took, then the dense smoke of newspaper as the flame slowly jumped from one section to another. The kindling ignited and Cline piled on the lodgepole quarter rounds. Sometimes these pieces of wood popped as they burned. Sometimes the only sound was the constant bass emanating from that entombed inferno—and his breathing.
Because Cline was still alive.
That was enough sometimes: to breathe and listen as the little sounds of his everyday life were swallowed in the vastness.
But this deafening stillness was also how he would fall asleep when the night wore on—in the expanse of his living room, on the couch, with a sandwich on the floor beside him. He slept sitting up, next to a picture in a black frame resting on the table beside him. It had been on that table for years, should’ve probably been removed from its blanket of dust, yet, despite what may have happened, that smile still made his heart skip. There were no pictures hanging on the wall, nor were there decorations on the tables. Space in the house was reserved for furniture, save for that one solitary picture.
When he woke, it was still dark outside. The wood in the couch creaked as Cline got up to put more fuel on the fire, just as it did when he sank back into the imprint his body had left in the cushions. When the sun rose, he did not eat the sandwich.
After another meal at Buttermaker’s, Cline Phillips walked into the forest thinking about how, in the past, he’d been accused of being too trusting in his life. He tended to pet dogs who wandered the town in skittish jerks from one end of the street to the other. He’d been bit before. Not bad, it startled him more than hurt him. A cat clawed him once, causing his arm to puff up. He stayed away from them after that.
This accusation of being too trusting was made by someone in his life whose memory was now covered in a blanket of dust. The irony of those words and being in love with her was not lost on him.
But he’d long since stopped getting close to people. Casual conversations with strangers were a bright spot in his morning, and Cline tended to talk as long as they were willing to continue the conversation. He liked it when they whispered across the table at Buttermaker’s about how they liked the mountain locals because they were so nice. But nothing more than a surface conversation occurred. Perhaps that newfound lack of trust was why talking to the waitresses still made him nervous, why he lost the feeling in his tongue whenever they chatted with him.
Cline stared at the tree he was about to cut; the chicken-fried steak hunkered like a stone in his stomach. Trust was something he often dwelled on before he sank the blade—mostly because mother nature can be a bitch and throw things at you at the last second. So many times he felled a tree hung up in the branches and had the limbs break free all around him in a rain of splinters and spikes and clubs. The first time it happens, even with a helmet, it’s a moment that can cause a man to leave the saw and run for higher ground.
With wedges and a good hinge, a clear drop line and safe cover, Cline could fell this tree with minimal effort. He wasn’t too concerned. The tree didn’t really look hung up, so it would probably come down without a wench; it was even leaning heavily in the right direction. Textbook. He’d had a good night’s sleep and a solid breakfast. The sun was shining, the mid-morning air was crisp, and Cline was ready for a day’s work.
The whine of a chainsaw is a thing of beauty, a song of cold mornings, and Cline let it sing. The sound was unmistakable, prolific and unique to regions where dense woods abounded, and during the autumn months, these calls cried out from different patches of forest uniting otherwise isolated bodies. The sheen of sweat had yet to appear on his cheeks as he made the notch, but was coming.
When he fell a tree, Cline wore a bright orange hardhat with ear protection and safety glasses. His chaps could stop a chain at peak revolution, and, thankfully, he’d never tested this sales point. In those chaps he held his wedges, so they were easy to grab when it came time to coax the tree to the forest floor. Cline was a fan of the conventional notch, which some found strange for a man who’d been in the forest as many years as he’d been. But he preferred a clean table top cut, where the stump was a smooth, solid plane. It looked clean and, in his mind, it allowed him to take the cut a bit closer to the ground. Sure the butt end of the tree wasn’t square, but it didn’t really matter since its purpose was to become firewood. Cline’s woodpile was filled with the notches he’d cut from these trees, some bigger than others, a trophy closet of sorts that eventually burned.
That was his life, wasn’t it? Conventional chunks of memories kept, filed away, only to be eventually burned. Over time, the ones left over would grow old and crumbly and broken with bits of new life growing on top.
The notch on this tree came out clean, like a slice of cold butter cut with a warm knife. The mechanics behind felling a tree were quite simple, where the right numbers, when added up, equaled proper placement. There was no magic in this, no luck, no ghosts to guide the chainsaw. It boiled down to skill gained over time, where simple past miscalculations were reflected on and corrected. One quarter of the depth of the tree, plus a forty-five degree angle pointing in the direction the tree is supposed to fall, make sure the cuts match; all that would equal the perfect guide when the back cut was made.
Some people glamorized the felling of a tree, at one time even Cline had done so. The zip of adrenaline he felt when the tree pivoted on its hinge, initially, was enough to make him want to pick up the hobby of selling cords of firewood. Now, when fire season came to an end, he came out to assuage the oppression of his house’s four walls, the very place where there was supposed to be someone to help make it a home.
He chuckled to himself. Home: where it wasn’t just a fire that made the place warm. Cooped up inside for too long and his sentimentality took over.
But out there, in the forest, it was the kind of alone Cline liked. And this time was no different, at least until he made the back cut.
Everything was going as it should: the saw was right in line with the front notch, there was no wind, or even a breeze. He had good placement on level ground. It was the ideal situation, if ever there was. But then, off the back cut, came a cracking sound, cartoonish in the way it started off as a small fissure and erupted into a crack of lightning that shot up the length of the tree. The thunder clap of sound as the lodgepole began to crumble under its own weight sent Cline running. Tripping over his own feet, scrambling on his on his hands, Cline stumbled beyond the range of where the tree should topple. It all happened so fast. He didn’t have time to process, though in the aftermath he saw the remains of what was his chainsaw. Forced to abandon it in order to escape the carnage, Cline had no idea how it came lie in the wreckage, how the tree was able to twist in such a way that it would land full force on top of it. Unless he had pulled it and tossed it without recollection, that was entirely possible, too.
It’s called a Barber Chair, what happened with that tree. It’s when the split happens vertically, leaving a large piece sticking straight up, resembling a chair. Though Cline felt this was more a close shave than it was any kind of resemblance to some kind of seat. So many what-ifs ran through his mind: What if he hadn’t gotten out of there as quickly? What if the tree had swung the other way? What if the chainsaw had bucked? He’d heard stories of this kind of accident, but never really thought it possible. With everything looking like a perfect textbook operation, Cline had taken his time. He was too slow and the natural lean of the lodgepole decided to take matters into its own hands. His heart beat filled his entire chest, as if his lungs and muscles were in tandem with the pulse, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom. So strong it hurt.
Cline picked up what he could of his chainsaw, each scrap of plastic delicately retrieved from the mess of dirt and bark and branches. With every handful, he dumped it into his helmet until the there was nothing much left to pick up. Small, minute elements still remained. He couldn’t spend his time on every little shard. Arriving back at his truck, Cline looked down at what was in his hands. A chainsaw.
Thank God it was only a chainsaw.
The keys rattled when they were hung in the entry way, swaying for a moment. Then they became silent, swallowed in the stillness of the house. Cline pulled his uneaten sandwich from the refrigerator, sat on his couch, and stared at the wall.
There was a picture next to him, under a blanket of dust. He looked at it for a moment and his heart no longer skipped a beat. He turned it facedown on the table. Cline took a bite of his sandwich and decided right then and there it might be the best sandwich he’d ever made.
But he fell asleep with it only half eaten.
What Cline Phillips liked most about Buttermaker’s Café was their chicken-fried steak. However, that next morning he realized there was a whole menu he had yet to try. What he really wanted was to tell someone about how his life had been spared in the forest.
That would have to wait until there was someone worth telling.
Lysette Cohen is a writer and musician from Phoenix, Arizona. She has a Master of Arts in Education and is finishing a Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing. When she isn’t writing, she is traveling the world in search of adventure.