Peter Schuler


Landscape

 

            Driving down Pertinax Drive, the street I grew up on, I saw Maddy from about a half block away. She had grown big since I'd last seen her. My sister towered over the surrounding light blue and white houses. Her waist stretched into the sky, dwarfing garages filled with lawnmowers and hedge sheers and weed whackers. Her outstretched arms provided a nice shady spot where I parked my blue rental. Right where Mommy used to park our station wagon. I got out with my purse and ran up the driveway.   

            I threw my arms around my little sister. I told her I missed her, which I did. Then I said I was sorry for letting five years pass, which I was. Someone had re-poured cement around her base. I gave her another hug. I put my hands on her bark, all gnarled and rough, then laughed because I got sap all over me. It was impossibly sticky stuff. 

            While wiping my hands in the lawn I decided that Maddy had become an adult, at least in the tree world. In my absence she had grown tall and wide. And I never remembered her having any sticky brown sap to deal with. Behind her was the garage. Next to that was the house we grew up in. Four of us. Me, Maddy, Mommy & Daddy. The house hadn't changed much. Now there was a flower garden under the front windows. And the mailbox was green and not our mailbox. But it looked pretty much like the same old house, a requiem, just a two story box with some holes cut out for windows and doors.

            I pulled my scissors out of my purse and started cutting into the lawn. Oh, yes the grass was new too. Some expensive, probably imported, stuff. Thick. Five years ago I didn't need scissors, I could just reach down, yank and a chunk of earth would come right out. But I didn't know who owned the house now, and was glad I remembered the scissors. So I scissored and scissored, sometimes using both hands, until I had a nice square of grass cut free. I pulled out the PB&J. The sandwich had its crust off and was wrapped in cellophane. I dug a little hole for the sandwich, but a woman's voice made me jump. 

            Miss! What do you think you're doing?

            At first I thought it was Maddy. But I found an elderly woman stepping from the front door of my childhood home. She held the screen open behind her, as if she might dash back into the house if the crazy young woman scissoring her front lawn did not satisfy her inquiry. The old woman looked fragile and gray, nothing like a dasher.

            Hello ma'am. I gave my best neighborhood smile.

            Why are you digging in my yard?

            I wrapped the sandwich back up and put it in my purse. I told her I was sorry. She got suspicious and I told her that I grew up in this house, that I tried to come once a year, and asked her if I could come in and see the inside. This wasn't my first rodeo. She remained suspicious and held the screen door until I showed her a Polaroid from my purse. It was me at sixteen and Mommy, standing in front of the house, with Maddy only a few feet tall, stuck in the driveway. We looked sad. I had brought the picture for proof. I hated that picture. 

            The lady seemed to buy it. I watched her folding forehead wonder: Does someone showing up at your house with an old picture mean that you should let them inside? And does that give them the right to hack up your lawn with scissors? She must have decided that yes, it did. Because she opened the screen door wide and told me her name was Margret Jones and asked if I took cream and sugar in my coffee. I did.

            After a brief tour of my previous home, we sat on her white couch in the living room. The place felt a lot smaller and old. From the inside, it was easy to tell that old people lived there now. Doilies on every surface. An oversized, muted TV hung on the wall.  A high-backed, royal looking armchair with metal studs along the sides had replaced Daddy’s old lazy boy.  

            How long did you live here? Mrs. Jones asked.

            Until I was seventeen. Me and Mommy moved out a few years after Daddy left.

            That's a shame dear. Are your parents still around?

            Mommy died five years ago. Breast cancer. Daddy, I couldn't even guess, haven't seen him since we were all here.

            Mrs. Jones dropped her head in solidarity. She said she was sorry for my loss and that losing someone can be the most difficult thing. Silence passed between us before she perked up a bit.

            Do you know about the tree in front? Me and Herb thought we'd be able to cut it down when we bought the place, but someone from the National Forestry came by and told us it's endangered.

            That's true, I said. Maddy is a eucalyptus sideroxylon, or a red ironbark. It's a federal offense to chop her down.

            I hate it! Mrs. Jones said with a laugh. Awful difficult to park in the garage with that damn tree in the way.

            I cringed, but Mrs. Jones couldn't have known. She seemed nice, miraculously un-jaded, despite her years. This was why I wanted to talk to Mrs. Jones, or whoever lived here, because they needed to care. That big dumb tree in the center of the driveway was my sister who spent her first ten years as a little girl and the next ten as a eucalyptus sideroxylon. 

            That was Maddy had in mind, I said. She rooted herself there to stop Daddy from leaving.

            What do you mean? Mrs. Jones leaned forward, her face filling with intrigue. 

            To tell you about the tree I need to tell you about Maddy. I slurped from my mug, marked the flavor of the Hazelnut creamer and cleared my throat. 

            Maddy was righteous but stubborn. Right from the start, she was unmovable. She had this

incredible sense of justice. Even from a few years old she used to intervene in fights at school and call out the badguys in her cartoons for their hypocrisy. But she always had this way with Daddy. He was pharmacist, a hard man with a soft spot for his girls. When I was eleven and Maddy six, he started filling out his own prescriptions. Everything changed. More and more he would come home high, loose, sometimes drunk of his ass. Then he started getting violent with Mommy. Pushing her around, slapping her, things me and Maddy would hear through the walls of our little pink bedroom upstairs.

Mrs. Jones moved uneasily in her chair.

            Things changed after the abuse played out in front of us. We were watching Walker Texas Ranger. Daddy came in and after a long argument, backhanded Mommy right here in the living room.

            I pointed roughly to the spot it happened.

            It was awful, nothing like the violence of Walker Texas Ranger on the TV. Maddy was the one who stopped it. I thought Daddy was going to kill Mommy, but Maddy grabbed his hand and said, Daddy, no! Stop it!

            He stopped.

            Mrs. Jones pushed her lips out and nodded.

Even though the physical violence stopped that night, it would seem that the countdown had started for Daddy. Turns out that seeing her daughters watching while she got beat-on was the last straw for Mommy. Daddy slept on the couch for five weeks before parking a Uhaul van in the driveway. I knew it was coming. But Maddy, she saw that van roll up and freaked out.

             Daddy began packing things like coats and fishing equipment into the back of the van. He told us he was going to leave the next day. He tried to tell Maddy that he wasn't leaving forever. That he would be back and that he and Mommy needed some space. But no one could lie to Maddy. She always knew. 

            My own opinion was good riddance. If he was going to keep hurting Mommy, I didn't want him around. Maddy had other plans. I don't know when, but at some point in the night, she climbed out of the second story window and planted herself in the driveway.

            The next morning, I woke up to the sound of a jackhammer. I had never heard one before. It was loud and thundering and shook the walls of our pink room. Maddy's bed was empty. I looked out the window. Our front yard had been sectioned off by yellow tape. Fire trucks, police cars and even an ambulance were parked around with their emergency lights flashing. People bustled about. Maddy stood in the middle of the driveway behind the Uhaul. Firemen and police officers surrounded Maddy, her legs buried in the driveway up to her knees. She smiled at me as a fireman jackhammered the cement around her shins. Someone had given her yellow earplugs. Mommy sat on the curb with tears in her eyes. 

            When I asked Mommy how this happened, she said that Maddy told her she tripped and fell and got stuck in the driveway. But we all knew she had purposefully rooted herself behind the Uhaul.

            After a while when the fireman had jackhammered the concrete away, Daddy began to dig at the earth around her legs with a shovel. Once he got to her calves, he stopped. He brushed the dirt away and found a skin-colored string going from her shin into the dirt. Daddy looked up like someone might inform him of what it was, attached to his daughter's leg, but everyone looked as confused as him. He shrugged and cut the line with his shovel. Maddy howled in pain. She reached down, tried to cover the wound. Blood started seeping out. Daddy had a look of horrible remorse and Maddy continued to cry, eventually asking for a band-aid. Everyone was weirded out. 

            In the hours that followed, Daddy carefully dug all around Maddy's legs until we could see her feet at the bottom of the hole in the driveway. Except they no longer looked like feet. They were roots. Her toes had lengthened and stretched deep into the earth around her. Dozens of super thin skin-colored cords shot out from her legs in all directions. When Daddy simply tried to pull Maddy out from the hole, she didn't move. Even when all the firemen and policemen all tried together she didn’t budge. Someone mentioned renting a backhoe but Mommy put a stop to that idea. Maddy was there to stay.

            Later, when the first responders and nosy neighbors had left and it was dark outside, I asked Maddy what happened. With a smirk she told me, I went to sleep behind Daddy's truck so he wouldn't leave. And I woke up like this!

            It worked, at least temporarily. Instead of some filthy hotel, Daddy was again asleep on the couch. There was no way of moving that van with Maddy stuck in the driveway. He brought his clothes and fishing gear back inside. The next morning Maddy's ankles started turning brown. 

            She said her legs felt weird and I helped her fill the hole back up with dark earth. Mommy brought out soup, but Maddy told her she didn't want that.

            I want PB&J, Mommy. Without the gross crust.

            So Mommy brought PB&J without the gross crust. I tried to tell Maddy that people can't avoid change. I knew she was scared of life being different. Scared of having to go forward, but I told her, Daddy loves us but he's messed up. It's not our fault, and there's nothing we can do. Maddy you have to live your life as best you can with the circumstances you have.

            She asked me what the word 'circumstances' meant and I told her. She thought about it. Then she said, I don't care, I'm not going to let Daddy go. I stopped him from hitting Mommy. I can stop him from leaving.

            I don't know if you can, I said. 

            She closed her eyes. I wasn't sure but I swear at that moment, she sunk down into the dirt another half-inch. 

            The next few months passed. We grew accustomed to Maddy having permanent residence in the front yard, behind the unmovable Uhaul, which Daddy ended up having to buy. I watched her skin get darker every day, the pigment slowly traveling up from her feet. After a few weeks, her knees were hard and scratchy to the touch. 

            It got to feel normal. Mommy brought her three PB&Js a day. Once or twice, I saw Daddy out there at night reading bedtime stories to her with a flashlight. It was six weeks in when we found her first leaf. It had sprouted right under her bellybutton. Tiny and green. When I gave it a gentle tug she said, Ow! and giggled. 

            She seemed happy, more than content to be stuck in the front yard, getting her sandwiches and stories. But inside the house, things continued to fall apart. Daddy didn't hit Mommy anymore, but they fought and screamed and threw things against the walls at dinner. The neighborhood got used to seeing Maddy. The mailman brought her candy. The neighbors gave us endless casseroles and Jell-O molds. Everyone stopped talk to Maddy in a confused but caring sort of way. 

            None of it mattered. After five months of rooting herself in the front yard, a new Uhaul showed up. This time Daddy parked it right on the lawn, next to where Maddy was planted, side by side with the old Uhaul. Again, he packed up his clothes and fishing gear. Maddy squirmed and writhed from her spot in the driveway, but by then her skin was mostly bark and her mouth could no longer open. Her hair had turned into long thing leaves, almost like grass, and her arms had turned hard and stuck in a fixed position. The only things still human were her brown eyes, and they were crying milky tears. The last thing Daddy packed up was his chair from the living room. He said he would call. He gave me a hug at the door and Maddy one in the driveway. 

            Without her voice to intervene it was a solemn event. He waived and gave his best neighborhood smile to me and Mommy. Then he drove the van off the lawn, over the curb, pass Maddy, and down the road. After two years, it was our turn to move. Me and Mommy tried to excavate Maddy and take her with us, but that's when we found out that she was an eucalyptus sideroxylon and that we couldn't move her.

            Back in her living room, Mrs. Jones's mouth lay open. She tried to smile, which must have seemed the appropriate response to her, but her mouth skewed and the absurdity of the story betrayed her intention. I didn't care. Hopefully, if she thought I was crazy or a liar, she would still take care of Maddy. No one wants to upset crazy people. Especially when they know where you live. 

            I try to come by at least once a year on Maddy's birthday. Today. I bury a PB&J in the yard next to the driveway. That's why I was digging in your yard. I haven't been able to come these last five years because of my doctorate program in bio-diverse botany at TCI. I hoped to ask you, as the current homeowner, to please look after my sister.

            Mrs. Jones face tightened. It was a look that reminded me of Maddy's face when Daddy's 1st Uhaul pulled into the driveway. A moment passed in silence before Mrs. Jones said, I will. I will. The second time as if reassuring herself. Again she tried to smile, but her face just couldn’t do it.   

            Just make sure she has enough water and nutrients. And if her birthday comes along and I’m not here to do if myself, could you bury a PB&J for her?

            Mrs. Jones said, I will.

            I thanked her and finished my coffee. After saying goodbye, I went back to my scissor-hole in the yard. I buried the sandwich and put the tuft of grass back in its place. I hugged Maddy again and told her that I loved her and that I missed her, which I still do. Looking up her trunk, way way up, I swear I could still make out where her brown eyes were, those two big knots looking down. Then I got in my blue rental and drove to my hotel, all the way wiping my hands on the car seat, trying to get her sticky sap off of my fingers.           


BIO

Peter Schuler is a writer who lives in a green cabin tucked away in the woods. He teaches English at two local colleges, running his courses like a video game where the points don’t matter and the bosses are increasingly difficult though somehow easier to get pass. His work has been published by The Pacific Review and Badlands. You can reach him by whispering his name into the wind.