"The Tree House"
a short story from Love Sketches by
I am very honored that David Appleby has allowed me to publish a short story from his remarkable collection, Love Sketches.
Author Bio:David Appleby is the author of "Moon Alley," a novel written in the form of connected stories and cited byamazon.com's 'top 10 reviewer, Grady Harp,' (Los Angeles) as "a solidly unique voice...and a highly recommended first novel," and was praised by 'Book View Ireland' for its "pleasing symmetry of structure and convincingly drawn picture of a once-thriving area."
His new book is titled, "Love Sketches," a collection of short stories which explores the "sensuality of romance and the varieties and vagaries of love." One of the stories in this collection has been anthologized in "Short Breaks: The Very Best of Shortbread Short Stories," published by Discovery Press, Scotland. It has also been recorded as an audio narrated by the distinguished British actor, Paul Jerricho.
The author, a recipient of a PEW Fellowship, is a graduate of Temple University
The first time I had spoken to him over the phone I soon wished he hadn’t called. “The bed is enormous, king size,” Peter had shouted into the phone that day, loud enough to cause me to pull back from the receiver. “Our play pen,” I heard him boast from a distance. I remember keeping the phone at arm’s length, his loud executive-meeting voice. “Room to roll around, roll in the hay,” he had continued. To irk me, I knew, for that had been his intent all along, ever since he had won her over me. We remained friends, however—yes, however, or as Helen had put it just a year after she had moved in with him, “How ever did we remain friends, Richard, the three of us, but especially you with Peter?” I never gave her a straight answer, what was the point? How could she ask such a question? She knew I was in love with her, and had been long before the day he buried her finger under that obscene diamond ring; I loved her more during the festival-type engagement party he had arranged, and loved her furiously as I listened to her exchange marriage vows with Peter. And now with this mid-day phone call coming on the day of the two year anniversary of their marriage, I thought of that first phone call and how that crazy call had angered me. And today this phone call was more of the same.
“Are you serious? You cannot be serious, Peter.”
“There’s no way I can get out of this,” he said. “I’m required to be there. I’m doing the power-point presentation, and the truth is no one else can handle it.”
“How ‘bout if you got hit by a car? Suppose you came down with the flu?
Then what?” I said with calm-coated sarcasm. I wanted to hold my voice down, stay calm, but I couldn’t hold back. “Your wife is getting a biopsy tomorrow. What the f*** is wrong with you?”
“Richard, cut the dramatics. She’s getting a simple procedure, needle in, needle out. She’ll be home before noon.” The line went quiet for a minute before he said, “She has to be at the hospital at ten o’clock. She knows exactly
The Tree House
what’s going on, and she’s not at all concerned. Neither am I,” he added. I heard him cough, a sound distant from the mouth of the receiver, and behind that cough, a woman’s voice.
“Where are you, Peter?” A ‘simple procedure.’ Did he really say that?
“I’m at the office, packing my bag. I’m catching the 4:40 to New York so I’ll get there for a dinner meeting with the L.A office. They’re already there, flew in yesterday, in fact.” The woman’s voice again, quiet but this time distinct. I heard her call his name. And then, as if she held the phone to her lips to speak directly to me, said, “We’re not going to miss this train, are we?”
I pressed the phone to my ear, and said firmly, “Peter, are you telling me you’re leaving from your office? You won’t even see Helen tonight? What the f*** is wrong with you?”
“I told her you’d be over by six. Hang in with her. Watch a movie. She’s expecting you anyway. Remember?”
“You both are expecting me for dinner tonight. Do you remember?”
“I have to go, Richard.” We were silent; I could hear him exhale what had to be a very deep breath. And then once more, this time emphatically, “I have to go. I’ll call you both in a few hours.” And that was it. That was Peter. And this was me, the phone in my hand, my teeth biting down on my finger.
* * *
The reception on my cell was terrible and I fully expected another dropped call, when quietly and suddenly Helen’s voice, her sweet voice, came through: “I could barely hear you. Did you hear me? Can you hear me?” she asked.
I pulled the car into a side street and stopped in a no parking zone. “Yes, I do hear you. And can you hear me?” She answered that she could, and I answered her that I could, and this went back and forth until I told her that I was on my way and just twenty minutes from her front door.
“Let yourself in,” Helen said quickly. “The key is beneath the frog that holds the umbrella—not the frog sitting on the lily pad.”
“I got it,” I said laughing. “And . . .
“Let yourself in, and lock up and come upstairs.”
“And what about dinner?” I asked. “Should I pick up something?” I assumed that Peter had had enough sense to tell her he’d not be home tonight.
“There’s enough in the fridge,” she said, adding, “It’s just the two of us.” I heard her sniffle. And then quietly, a touch of pleading, of reaching out, “I’ll let you go now so you can hurry over.”
Our friends thought us inseparable, the three of us. How could they not? We had partial season tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra, three seats in the loge section, although Peter hardly attended more than two or three concerts—in
his absence Helen and I gave his ticket to one of the Curtis students waiting in the general admission line on Locust Street. We’d meet on Broad Street thirty minutes before the concert, and I’d see Helen walking from the parking lot, alone, and cleverly hide my joy and join her on the sidewalk where the line of students had formed; together we’d search for the one we agreed was deserving of a free ticket. Criteria? We had none. I’d opt for the prettiest girl; she’d call me a cad, but hand over her husband’s ticket. Yes, you’re a cad, she’d say every time, threatening to sit next to the pretty girl, putting her in Peter’s seat, away from me. Sometimes she did just that; other times deliberately not, just to see how or if I’d come on to the pretty girl. I played along, jokingly condemning Helen for her deviant ways, but relishing the opportunity to let my arm touch her arm on our shared armrest.
We’d go to the occasional movie, the three of us, or here and there I’d bring a date along—one of the pretty girls from a previous orchestra concert to irk Helen, which it did not, and other times, spur-of-the-moment weeknights, it would be just the three of us—peas in a pod, Peter like to say—and when he went off to make a phone call during the movie, and return twenty or thirty minutes later, we—Helen and I, or Helen and I and my pretty-girl date—would pretend that we did not have a ‘where the hell were you’ question waiting for him. I was a regular at their beach house during the summer months, an invitee to Helen’s and Peter’s family functions—Helen, already twice a bridesmaid, Peter a best man for his brother; add a grandparent’s funeral, two Thanksgiving Day dinners, and two Christmas celebrations, and the ritual New Year’s Eve parties in which our old college crowd assembled from wherever they had emigrated—Chicago, San Francisco, New England. The hippest of our college friends—French film aficionado and Truffaut maven—referred to us as ‘Jules and Jim,’ which, of course, made Helen our Catharine. He had been only half right. Peter and Helen were married; Helen and I were merely wedded, and speaking for myself, I honored my dishonorable thoughts toward their marriage, and believe that Helen did the same. Nothing untoward occurred between us, other than our lopsided mutual thoughts of what might have been.
* * *
I unlocked the door, rang the bell, and walked into the foyer. “It’s me,” I called as I reached the middle of the stairs leading to the second floor bedrooms. It was a modest house by today’s standards, four bedrooms, two and a half baths, two car garage, and closet space for an army, and a kitchen large enough to cook for that army. The most distinctive feature of the property was not the house at all, but that it was surrounded by trees; the driveway lined with old growth elms and maples that ultimately ringed around to the side of the house;
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blue spruce, more maples, and long-needle pines climbed the soft rise to the west side of the house, nestling mere feet from the huge, horizontal window of Helen’s workroom-office. Once upstairs on the landing, I walked directly to the door of that room, the room Helen called, ‘The Tree House.’
The low, soft sound of her voice greeted me from behind the door. And yet a detectable flatness in pitch in her simple, “I’m here . . . I’m here.” The door was slightly ajar and I opened it slowly, hiding a clutch of daisies behind my back. She was lying on a day-bed, propped up actually, by several huge wheat-colored throw-pillows. The day-bed was positioned so that she was close to the window—a window that was ten feet long and some five or six feet from ceiling to floor, ‘the closest thing to an atelier this side of Paris,’ Helen had told me that day she had given me the tour of the house, a house that she and Peter had agreed to buy. “For me?” she asked, mockingly, holding her folded hands beneath her chin, batting her eyes theatrically, awaiting her daisies. I knew at first glance that she had been crying, and felt that she knew that I knew. She quit her theatrics, looked up at me.
I put the flowers in her hands, touched her lips with mine, my hands over her hands to steady the bunch of daisies.
“You will stay?” she asked. A quick grin and then a sniffle to hold back the tears that had welled in her eyes, pale eyes that had remained locked onto mine.
“I’m here to stay,” I answered. I touched the single tear that had fallen to her cheek.
“I mean stay over tonight.”
“I’m here to stay. And I’m taking you to the hospital tomorrow,” I said, forcing a smile.
“Let’s not talk about Peter,” she said. She reached beneath her coverlet and removed a packet of tissues. “Let’s just . . . .” She took a breath, turned from me swiftly and touched her nose to the window. “Look, there.” She pointed to the dense green world just outside the window. “There, into that branch” she said excitedly. “Cardinals. Two of them.” She lifted slightly, turned and pressed the side of her face against the window to follow the escaping flight of the redbirds. And then she rested her hands on the window sill and turned to me. “Did you see them, Richard?”
She was a girl of two voices, yes, but despite the softness in both, one voice exuded passion. She treasured common events with a heartfelt joy, and you felt the sudden passion that she had for the smallest things—a rainstorm, the flight of a bird looping from tree to tree, the laughter of children at play—and with this voice I thought often that she touched the freedom that existed in these small and simple everyday things in a way that few others did; with that voice there was a delightful girlishness about her. The second voice was one that
whispered her sorrows, and it was this voice that matched the seductive sadness of her pale gray eyes. I loved both voices; the one lifted me and made it possible for me to experience her joy, while the other, the sorrowful, plunged my love for her deeper into the mystery of her sensuality. Of course this sorrowful side of her I placed right into Peter’s lap—I wanted to say that he was the cause of it all; though deep down I knew that her sorrow, though swollen by him, had predated their marriage.
“Those two think they have visitation rights,” she said of the redbirds. Come right up to the window ledge and peek in to me—tap their yellow beaks against the window. Can you believe how bold they are?” She tapped her fingernail against the glass in imitation of the birds.
“Well, leaving food on the ledge might have something to do with it, don’t you think? And forgetting to leave them their pick-ins might be the reason why they tap your window—bird talk for, ‘Where’s our food, Helen?’”
She placed the daisies on a table behind the day bed, took my hands in hers, her eyes on our hands. When she looked up at me I saw a forlorn expression; a look of abandonment had claimed her pale eyes. I glanced out the window when she increased the pressure on my hands; I stared at the strand of long-needle evergreens whose boughs drooped low to close against one another to hide like dark, woeful faces. “Move closer to me,” I heard her whisper. I did.
“I know you’re worried,” I said softly.
“I’m scared.” A single tear fell to her cheek.
“Hey . . . hey,” I whispered. I moved my hand to her face and trapped her tear, touched it away from her face. She lowered her eyes and dabbed the tissue against her eyelids, then opened her eyes slowly, and lifted her head from the pillow. She looked to the trees.
“No. I’m scared. And I know you’re scared, too. We are scared,” she emphasized.
I took a breath, prepared to look for an excuse for Peter, but she saved me.
“I’m also scared of needles,” she said quickly, dropping her head back into the pillow, as a small, false smile crossed her lips. But her eyes had darkened, as if the cloud had reached inside to cover her as it had the sun, and the false smile quickly vanished.
“I’ll be there with you,” I said, hoping to reassure her. I thought of Peter. ‘Needle in, needle out.’ So typical.
“You can’t hold my hand when they do it,” Helen said, taking a deep breath, her face flushed by a wave of crimson that had swept from her neck. “And it’s not exactly just a needle.”
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“What’s that mean? It’s a biopsy, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but it’s not . . . the simple one. They have to make a cut, and then insert the needle into the lump. And it’s not a little, little needle, a bit larger than that. The needle removes a sample from the lump.”
“How long does this take?”
“I don’t know for sure. My doctor said they’ll use some ultrasound too. Something about images for the needle. I don’t know for sure, I couldn’t focus.”
“Wasn’t Peter there?”
Her eyes fixed on mine. She placed a forefinger to her lips to tell me not to comment, not to speak. I obeyed, but I couldn’t hold back my despair or my disgust, and I’m sure she saw it on my face—she was good at that, reading people, their moods, and the face they wore. “And how long does this take—and when do you get the results?”
“Five days. The results come in about five days.” Her eyes now wet and rimmed red.
Several rain drops hit the window. “I mean the test. How long does it take?”
“Up to an hour, not more,” she said. And then the longest moment passed when neither of us spoke. She continued to stare at me; I couldn’t turn from her eyes. I saw there a profound sadness, a wet, gray sadness, and I felt seized by her sorrow. I wanted to tell her not to be afraid, but the stupidity of my thoughts rang in my head to prevent me from becoming the fool, for hadn’t I just told her that I too was afraid? I wanted to tell her that I would not leave her, yet I understood that being in a waiting room made me a bit more than a mere chauffeur, but essentially that, a chauffeur-friend, and I would be leaving her alone with doctors and nurses and technicians who knew things she did not. Tomorrow I will have turned her over to strangers wearing light blue scrubs and white running shoes and tired, perfunctory smiles, and they’d perform one more nightmarish test.
Suddenly, in one seamless move, she turned from the window, from the pearl-like raindrops pit-a-patting the huge window, and reached for my hands, her eyes staring deep into mine. She took my hands and lifted them to her breasts. She held her hands gently over mine, a feather touch, and allowed her slender fingers the slightest pressure against my hands, as if she had pushed through a cushion of air that lay between our hands. Her breasts felt warm and full beneath her cotton tank top. Her fingers appeared to float above mine, yet the touch of her fingers on mine was real. Neither of us spoke.
Tears fell from her eyes, but she continued to hold her eyes on mine. She delicately increased the pressure of her hands on mine, and then closed her eyes. She moved her head deeper into the pillow. I sat on the edge of the day bed and watched her hands slowly move mine over her breasts, her fingers displacing that pocket of air that had seemingly separated our hands; she was now pressing firmly against my fingers and my fingers responded to her breasts. Tears escaped from beneath her eyelids, and her lips parted as she extended her legs beneath the coverlet. She continued to direct my hands, and in her slow circular motions, my hands caressed her breasts. Her whimpers were intermittent, small and soft, and escaped without her notice. She turned her face to the rain-beaded window, as did I, and with our hands held in place, we lifted our teary eyes to the lush green world that lay outside the tree house.
End of Guest Post
Love Sketches on Amazon
Appleby's blog is HERE and is very interesting.
I will be posting in the next few weeks a number of additional stories by the author and am greatly honored to be allowed to share these wonderful stories with my readers. I will also do one of my "normal" posts on some of his longer stories.
Again my thanks to David,