? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 5

Fiction

Mickey Hess

The Old Man and the Tree


1.

Andrew had written a story about seeing an old man drive into a tree. It was messy, even by English 101 standards, but it was the best thing I read all semester. The old-timer yelling at the neighborhood kids as they played football across his yard, then as they grew up and drove too fast around the curve in front of his house. It ended with Andrew and his friends, now college aged, standing in front of their sports cars watching the old man drive slowly into a maple tree.

It was brilliant.

That year, my thirtieth year, I found myself spending far too much time with people ten years younger than me. I introduced all my friends as “my former students.” I met their parents. They met my wife.          

That fall I was invited to read words I had written, out loud, in a woodshop outside Evansville, Indiana. The stage would be two workbenches pulled together and covered with a blanket. They promised to pass around a Mason jar for gas money. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Andrew looked at his feet when I talked to him on campus, when I asked him to come with me and read his story about the old man and the tree. But he agreed. He was excited. Told me he’d been in plays in high school, which was sort of the same thing.

We ignored weather reports and drove across the state of Indiana, Andrew’s mom calling periodically to provide ice storm updates and remind him to take his insulin, and my wife in the passenger seat playing old bands that she felt Andrew should hear to better understand the new bands he liked. The Pixies. The Smiths. Andrew told us about humorous things he had done at parties.

Inspired by him, I read the good people of Evansville some stories I wrote when I was eighteen, about stealing things and setting things on fire. Andrew read a story about urinating into a potted plant at a party. The audience cheered and awarded us with a Mason jar full of gas money, but we didn’t get far.

An ice storm trapped us for three nights at the home of a sculptor who worked days at the literary woodshop. The sculptor made Tater Tots and coffee, stuck as he was with us, his unexpected houseguests—two vegetarians and one diabetic. The diabetic and vegetarians watched old skater films while the sculptor chiseled away in the basement, his sulking girlfriend rarely emerging from the bedroom.

Evansville, Indiana was encased in ice. Driving was impossible and even walking was treacherous. Still, after a day and a half, the sulking girlfriend insisted on digging her car out and getting away from the house and Andrew’s running commentary on the photograph of her hot younger sister. 

Through the kitchen window, Andrew and I watched the sculptor’s girlfriend prepare for her escape. She chiseled away at her car like the sculptor in the basement turning wood and metal into little creatures and helicopters. She chiseled like she knew there was a car under there.

When the tires spun free, we latched onto her: “Take us to find food.”

We came back with frozen pizza crusts, fake pepperoni, and fifteen sugar free chocolate and chocolate mint Dr. Soy bars, which Andrew insisted were awesome.    

We played board games. I took a nap with my wife while Andrew tried to convince the sculptor’s girlfriend to drive out and bring back her younger sister. I talked to the sculptor while Andrew watched soap operas with my wife.

Andrew and I sat up talking all night. We talked about what a good excuse diabetes is for missing class or turning in papers late. It’s mysterious. People don’t understand it.

We talked about Hemingway, Céline, Knut Hamsun, and other people we believed each other should read. We talked about rap music and played a video game in which we stole cars and smashed them into trees and buildings and banks.

“I never even work on the missions or anything. I just run around beating up cops.” Andrew showed me a cheat code to get the tank, and we killed policemen, luring them out of their squad cars and blowing them up with bazookas. We got blown up too, of course, but that’s what we’d put on our tombstones:

Here lies Andrew

“At least I took a lot of cops with me.”

I liked Andrew. I liked how he walked kind of like Charlie Chaplin and would pull up his pants and tighten his belt mid-stride. How he hunched over and clutched his ribs when he laughed. I liked how he spent a lot of time on his hair, his deep voice, and how he muttered like a bitter old man.

If it made me feel cool to hang out with Andrew, it was in that way that feels like you’ve been drawn into somebody else’s world, somebody infinitely more exciting than you. He had so much more promise than people my age.

2.

            “You think my insides are drying up.”

“No.”

“Then what’s the hurry?”

“It’s just, I don’t know, I mean we just turned thirty. What do you see when you look into the future?”

“This, I guess.”

“Just this? You don’t think about watching our future kid grow up and graduate and go off to college?”

“No. I don’t.”

“So this is it? Just this?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

            Upstairs in the sculptor’s spare bedroom, my wife and I continued what had become our ongoing discussion about the future.

            “But someday you want kids?”

            “Someday. Maybe.”

Downstairs we hear something expensive-sounding fall and shatter, then Andrew muttering, “Fuck.”

            “What if our kid’s like Andrew?” I ask my wife.

            “It probably will be.”

3.

            Andrew told me that the key to underage drinking is to say “I left my ID in my server apron.” By his logic, kids under twenty-one can’t work as servers, so this excuse proves he’s of age. “It always works.” I never saw it work.

            Instead, what I usually saw was the bartender telling him, “Well, go get your server apron,” and Andrew running and the rest of us wondering why he never came back.

As a show of solidarity, as a protest against unfair ageism, I declared that I would not drink in any establishment that refused my friend Andrew. That year the two of us took stances. We took on forces bigger than us. We drank root beer in restaurants and started our own reading series in Andrew’s mom’s basement.

Andrew’s mom was an expert baker cursed with a diabetic son. Every Thursday night, our reading series served petits fours, torte, and three kinds of cheesecake. She made candy like I thought you could only buy in a Whitman’s Sampler. I was as close to Andrew’s mom’s age as I was to Andrew’s, but as young as she was, she seemed like she’d been born a mom.

“Andrew got into NYU, you know.”

“Mom, Jesus.”

“He just wasn’t ready to leave home yet.”

“Mom, holy fuck, I can leave home, okay?”

Andrew invited his indie-rock friends and fraternity brothers. He read stories about parties and doing seven Smiths songs in a row on karaoke until someone unplugged the machine. He read the introductory chapter from a political philosophy textbook. But he made it so damn entertaining.        

It was mind-blowing.

It was the best reading series in someone’s basement in all of New Albany, Indiana.      

But then the Icelandic rock star showed up.

The Icelandic rock star was fifty years old, if anything. People in Iceland agree that his band was, by far, the best Icelandic rock band of the century. In Iceland, the old rock stars become poets. But not the boring kind you hated reading in college. I took him to an English Department party, and the professors didn’t even know how to talk to him. He stole a bunch of unmarked pills from the bathroom cabinet and threw up in the backyard. 

When he showed up at Andrew’s house and Andrew introduced him to his mom, he said, “Hi, Andrew’s mom,” and then, “Son, does your mom have any vodka?”

In the basement, Iceland’s finest guitarist read poems about his youth, about stealing quarters from wishing wells. Andrew read a story about contracting something called herpangina, which his mom thought was a venereal disease.

By 2 a.m., the rock star was snoring with his boots on an antique ottoman, and Andrew’s mom was saying she didn’t care how famous he was in Iceland, she wanted him out of her house.

            This was the end of our reading series.

4.

That year three students had died on campus, which was making a lot of us nervous. There was an aneurysm and an allergic reaction. Someone OD’d in the parking lot.

            The English Department asked me to speak to Andrew. He had used diabetes as an excuse for missing his Chaucer exam, but it seemed like more than just an excuse this time. He was pale and skinny and weak looking, but when Dr. Pederson insisted on driving him to the hospital, he knew he could still outrun her.

            “We’re really concerned about him.”

“Will you talk to him?”

By the end of our first official student-teacher conference, Andrew had made diabetes sound hip and exciting. I learned of his dedication to outdoing his fraternity brothers, how they all chanted his last name as he followed each shot of alcohol with an insulin shot. “I have to keep close track of it—if my blood sugar bottoms out, I just get kind of angry and confused. I freak out.”

“You should write about it,” I said. “Incorporate your illness into your stories. That way it’s not just all about parties. There’s something deeper to it.”

            A week later, he rode his bike twenty miles on an empty stomach and ended up locking himself in the garage thinking people were out to get him. His mom had to call the cops to break down the door, and Andrew got in five or six solid punches before he could be restrained.

5.

            I read in a magazine at my wife’s doctor’s office that when most people picture their unborn kids, they don’t picture a newborn; they picture a three-month-old, smiling and cooing and holding her head up on her own.

            Is it weird to picture her college aged?

6.

At the ice-skating rink, at Andrew’s twentieth birthday party, he and I circled for hours, dodging small, fearless kids who could fall and rebound like their bones hadn’t just smacked the ice. We talked about writing. Andrew was working on a new story. “I’m writing this new story about my dad and how he kind of used up my mom and moved on.” Andrew’s dad, the pilot, had left his mom and moved on to a new family, had a new baby and left behind his two teenage sons. In the story, Andrew’s dad tries to bond with him by taking a road trip to the childhood home of his grandparents.

“So how do you and your dad get along now that you’re older?” Andrew asked, and when I told him we never got the chance to find out, he got quiet. That’s what I liked about hanging out with Andrew. Where older people would claim to know how I feel, Andrew would say, “That must be awful. That’s unimaginable.”

7.

It was the second time someone had asked me to talk to Andrew. I could get through to him, people thought. We had some kind of connection.

This time it was his mom on the phone. “Is Andrew staying at your house?”

“No. Isn’t he staying at your house?”

            She sighed. “I haven’t talked to Andrew in a week. He doesn’t come home; he won’t return my calls. I’m worried about him. I know he isn’t taking care of himself.

If you see him, will you talk to him for me? He’s going to lose the deposit on his dorm room in Manhattan.”

I did not know about Manhattan. Manhattan was happening behind my back.

Andrew had enrolled that semester in two universities: Indiana Southeast in New Albany, and NYU in Manhattan. I knew about Indiana, and his mom knew about Manhattan. Neither one of us knew why he would enroll in two schools in two different states and not show up for classes at either of them.

“I’m sorry I bothered you,” his mom said, audibly crying. “I thought he talked to you about stuff like this. I thought he kind of confided in you.”

I thought so too, I thought. But I didn’t tell her that.

8.

Andrew didn’t show up to that one, or the next two.

The semester went on without him. I taught new classes, full of new students, and the future became no clearer.  

When Andrew resurfaced during NYU’s fall break, having cost his mom double tuition and missed the first two weeks of two sets of classes, he was sitting on the floor outside my office, writing furiously in a red notebook. He had grown a scraggly beard, but a beard, still.

We stared at each other, him looking like he didn’t expect to see me at the door to my office any more than I expected to see him there.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

He kept writing.

“What are you working on?”

He shrugged. “In my class at NYU, we’re supposed to rewrite one of our stories from the perspective of a different character.”

“Which one are you doing?”

“‘The Old Man and the Tree.’”

“So you’re writing it as the old man?”

“No, I’m revising it from the car’s perspective.”

He closed his notebook and capped his pen. “I’m sorry my mom called your house,” he said. “She’s crazy.”

            I may have said some things about responsibility. I may have asked him how hard is it to pick up a phone, or skip one night of drinking.

But whatever I said, the words didn’t sound right to me. And I could see that things were not going to be the same between us.

Time moved on. The Icelandic rock star went back to Iceland. My wife and I continued debating whether or not to have children. Andrew’s mom went back to worrying about Andrew, and Andrew went back to New York.

I replaced him shortly with a personified car, a Corvette, and while it isn’t the same as hanging out with Andrew, it’s not bad. The Corvette and I can confide in each other. The Corvette never ages or moves away. The Corvette goes to bars and gets drunk.