by J.R. Lindermuth
Trees and Memories was first published once some time ago–while not a traditional mystery short story, it does have a mysterious side to it. This is the first of several Christmas short stories that will be going up between now and Christmas.
Jasper Greene shuffled to a window and pulled back the curtain, peered out, and saw a station wagon in his yard.
The driver was a stranger but one familiar with country ways. He sat in the car with the motor running, waiting, not coming up to pound on the door like some traveling salesman. The old man went back to his coffee and waited.
The old man lived alone, except for a dog and his memories. He’d lived this way for a long time, longer than he cared to recall. He sought no company, save that of his dog and his memories. Over the years, his neighbors grew accustomed to his ways and mostly left him alone.
But this stranger wouldn’t leave. The running motor continued to intrude on Greene’s morning. Finally he went out, buttoning his coat on the way.
The stranger rolled down his window. “Morning,” he said as Greene came up. “Name’s Devereaux.”
“Yeah,” the old man said, not offering his own name, reluctant to give a stranger more than notice.
“I came about the trees.”
“Those,” Devereaux said, pointing past the old man to the unused pasture that sloped up behind the house. The pasture, fallow beneath a blanket of snow, sprouted a forest of pines, balsams, and firs, black in the dim morning light, looking like a village of churches with spires pointed skyward.
“I sell Christmas trees down in the city,” Devereaux said.
Time passed for the old man without his thinking about it; one day as alike as another. Christmas was as unimportant to him as the Fourth of July.
The old man looked at Devereaux and shook his head. Except for dead wood to start his fires, he seldom thought about the trees and had no use for them. But he didn’t like Devereaux’s looks, greasy and slick in an ill-fitting suit, and he didn’t want to sell to him.
“I’ll give a good price.”
“Can I look and see what’s up there? I could give you a price to ponder. You wouldn’t have to give me an answer today.”
“S’pose it wouldn’t hurt none,” Greene said, stuffing a wad of plug behind his bottom lip and gumming it like a cud.
Devereaux grinned and climbed out of the car. And that was when the old man first saw the boy, scrawny and scruffy, but with the expression of an angel on his small face as he slept in the back seat of the wagon.
The two men went up the hill and Devereaux looked over the trees, shaking snow from limbs, kicking trunks, mumbling to himself, and making notations in a small notebook. The old man trailed along, chewing his plug and not saying anything. When he finished, Devereaux stretched, lit a cigarette, consulted his notebook, then turned to the old man. “Two hundred and fifty. But, they’re a scrubby lot. Not as good as they looked from down there. Best I could offer would be a dollar a piece.”
The old man chewed his plug and looked at the trees. He had not thought about them for a long while. Now he remembered the hot summer day he and his son planted them as a wind-break; a long time ago, yet, he recalled the heat of that day, the heady scent of the sap, the hard work, and the sore muscles of the next day. Most of all, he recollected the closeness he and his son shared that day.
Sometimes on long winter nights when sleep was slow in coming, those cold nights when the outside was filled with familiar sounds of cracking ice and thrashing tree limbs and the wind shaking the house and, inside, still more familiar noises as the house answered back with creaks and groans, then the old man lay awake in his cold bed and fed on memories such as this. Sometimes the memories gave him pain; more often they solaced him.
“Not interested,” he told Devereaux.
“How about I come back in a couple-three days?”
“Waste your gas.”
Devereaux flashed a slippery grin. “Mebbe, mebbe not. You think on it.”
The boy was gone when they came back.
“Dang kid,” Devereaux said, “he’s always wandering off. Help me look for him, will you?”
They searched the yard and the barn and the other outbuildings, Devereaux grumbling and swearing all the while, but they couldn’t find the boy.
“Probably hidin’ around here somewhere,” Greene said.
Devereaux scowled and checked his watch. “I got a couple more calls to make. Could you do me a favor and keep lookin’ for the kid. I’ll get back quick as I can.” Then, without waiting for the old man’s answer, he climbed in the wagon and started the engine.
The old man watched him drive away. Then he went in the house.
The boy was in the kitchen, playing with the old man’s dog. He looked up as Greene came in, smiled an angel’s smile. He was a small boy of seven or eight; a small boy with a round ruddy face and eyes like his smile.
“You missed your ride,” the old man said.
“He’ll come back.”
“What if he don’t?”
“Then I’ll stay with you.”
“Hell,” said the old man.
“People haint supposed to swear.”
“You did. You said H-E-Double Toothpicks.”
In spite of himself, the old man had to grin. “What’s your name, boy?”
“You want some milk, Tony?”
“Sure,” the boy said with another smile.
“You’re here, haincha?”
“I come up on the porch, and I heard the dog cryin’. Thought I better check her out.”
“Your eggs was burning up. I gave them to the dog.”
The eggs. He’d been warming at the table with a cup of coffee, waiting for the eggs, when he heard Devereaux’s car. He’d forgotten all about the eggs. “To the dog? He already et.”
“He ate again.”
“You want some?”
The dog stretched, whined, and rolled over on its back. Tony knelt beside it, scratching the dog’s belly. The old man watched and a pang of jealousy touched him.
Like him, the dog was old, and they didn’t ask much of one another. He fed the dog, and the dog gave him companionship and the arrangement suited both of them. Sometimes the old man talked to the dog, as though it were a person, and the dog cocked its head and listened as if it understood. But, of course, the dog couldn’t answer, and then the old man turned to his thoughts and his memories and, often, they were the same thing.
But the boy and the dog were not concerned with the past. They were too busy with now. The boy laughed and the dog showed its gratitude for the boy’s attention with many thumps of its tail.
The old man went about making their eggs, stealing occasional glances at the boy. Having the boy there disturbed him, but, somehow, it was good, too. The boy evoked memories of his own son; some were painful, though, more of them were good, and he thought how fine it was to be reminded of so much that had been good about his child.
“Do you live all by yourself?” the boy asked while they were eating.
“Doncha have no kids?”
“Not no more.”
The old man sighed. “Gone. They’re gone—wife and kid. Just me and the dog now.”
The boy’s big blue eyes glistened. He shook his head. “Don’t it make you sad?”
Greene shook his head, avoided the boy’s eyes. “It was a long time ago. Ever’body has to die sometime.”
“My Momma died. It makes me sad.”
“Yeah. Well, you still got your Daddy.”
“No. He’s gone, too.”
“Huh? Devereaux haint your Daddy?”
“Nah. I’m his foster-kid.”
“Oh. Well, he takes care on you.”
“How about his wife?”
“What good’s that do?”
“I don’t know. Don’t you ever get lonesome?”
There wasn’t much the old man could say to that. He consumed the last of his eggs and took his plate to the sink. It wasn’t something he could discuss with the boy. But he did miss his family. The woman’s sickness was not something that could have been changed. But why had Danny not stayed on the farm? Why did he have to go off to fight in a war that was not their business? Still, there was no changing any of it now. They were both gone, and he did miss them.
After a while Devereaux came back as he had said he would. Again he sat in the yard, running his motor, waiting for the old man to come out.
“Boy’s inside,” Greene said. “How about lettin’ him stay with me till you come back about the trees?”
Devereaux eyed him suspiciously. “What for?”
“The kid haint happy with you. That’s why he keeps runnin’ off. Him and my dog hit it off. The change might do him good.”
“C’mon. Whadya got to lose?”
“Okay,” Devereaux said finally, “but I want those trees. No monkey business, you hear? I’ll be back tomorrow. And I get the trees, right?”
Greene shook his head, grinning. “You get ‘em.”
That night and the next day were happier than any the old man had known in years. The boy seemed happy, too. Even the dog seemed to thump its tail more vigorously.
Greene taught the boy how to milk the cow and tend the chickens. They joked and laughed together. They played games the old man found up in the attic—games he had played with his son long ago. They walked the barren fields with snow fluttering down to keep them company. They drank hot chocolate and talked. And, the old man told the boy of his wife and his son, of the planting of the pines, and finally, of his son’s going away.
“So he’s gone now,” the old man said, “and all I got left of him is those games we played, those trees, and memories.”
“And now you’re gonna sell the trees to Mr. Devereaux?”
“You can’t sell the trees.”
“Got to. I promised. Besides, I’ll still have the memories. They’re more important.”
“But the pines are part of the memories,” the boy argued.
“Yeah, I guess they are,” the old man said, but he knew in his heart he would have to relinquish them to gain what he wanted now.
“I just had to come along back up here,” Mrs. Devereaux said. “When he told me he left the boy with a perfect stranger…”
“Told you it was all right,” Devereaux said. “Ever’body round here speaks highly of Mr. Greene. Say he sticks to hisself, but you can’t fault a man for minding his own business.”
“It wasn’t his business I was worried about.”
“As you can see, ma’am, the boy’s fine,” Greene told her.
Devereaux’s woman was short and plump-bosomed with the soft, sad eyes of a dove. But, she’s got a spark to her, the old man thought, gotta give her that. Despite what the boy had said about them, she seemed concerned about him and greeted him affectionately when they arrived. And that worried the old man; still, he wasn’t about to alter his plan.
“Told you there was nothin’ to worry about,” Devereaux told his wife. Then he turned to Greene, rubbing his palms together. “Now, then, about the trees…”
The old man nodded, glanced at Mrs. Devereaux. “Yeah. You get the trees. That is, if you’re willing to agree to my conditions.”
“Whadya mean, conditions?” Devereaux said, narrowing his eyes at the old man through a shroud of cigarette smoke.
“I mean, I’ll let you have the trees on condition,” Greene said, his voice rising to a thin tenor pitch.
“What condition? Can’t give you no more money than I told you.”
“Didn’t ask for more money.”
“The boy. I want the boy.”
Devereaux’s wife moaned. “Lordy, Lordy.”
“Yep,” Greene said, calmer now with determination. “I’ll give you the trees, but I want the boy to come live with me.”
Devereaux jumped up, knocking the chair over with a bang. “What are you—some kind of pervert? I haint givin’ you my kid for no dang trees!”
“I haint no pervert, and he haint your kid. The boy told me you haint his daddy.”
Devereaux went white in the face. He stomped out his cigarette, glanced at the boy, then back at Greene. “Well, not by blood. But he’s the same as my own.”
Mrs. Devereaux glared at Greene. “Never heard of such a thing,” she said, shaking her head. “What kind of people do you think we are that we’d trade the boy for your old trees? We care about him.”
“Don’t appear the boy feels that way. Says all you care about’s the money you get for keepin’ him.”
Mrs. Devereaux began to wail, “Tony! Oh, Tony!”
Devereaux was stunned. He slumped against the wall and hung his head.
“Please, please, don’t take Mr. Greene’s trees,” Tony shouted, jumping up. “They’re his memories. I’ll stay with you.” Tears shone in his eyes.
Mrs. Devereaux’s soft eyes sought the boy and her arms reached out to him. He ran to her and buried his face in her pigeon bosom, sobbing.
The woman patted his head with a plump hand and looked up at Greene who had come over to them. “It’s true we get money from the state for lookin’ after him. But we’d take him even if we didn’t. His momma was my sister, and we love him like he was truly our own.”
“That’s right,” Devereaux said, “like our own.”
The old man glanced at him. “Says you’re mean to him,” he said, softly.
“Tony…is that what you think?” Mrs. Devereaux asked.
The boy raised his head and looked at her. “I fibbed,” he said. “I was mad at mister.”
“Tony,” the old man said, pleadingly, “you wanna come live with me?”
The boy shook his head, no.
“You like me, doncha?” Greene croaked in a subdued voice.
“Sure. But I didn’t know you wanted to swap your trees for me.” He hung his head and gnawed his thumbnail.
Devereaux righted his chair, sat down, and lit another cigarette. “My fault this happened. Don’t know how to be a daddy to the boy. Trouble just seems to follow since we went to the city.”
“Phil can’t seem to find no good jobs,” his wife said. “We both have to work. Lord, we want to be good parents for Tony. We try. But I guess we just don’t know how. We wanted kids of our own. I couldn’t have any.” She dabbed at Tony’s tears with her handkerchief.
“This tree business was our last hope,” Devereaux said.
Devereaux nodded. “You don’t know how much I envy you, Mr. Greene.”
“This place,” Devereaux said, his eyes shining. “This farm. Your own land, and it appears you don’t even work it.”
“You a farmer?”
“Best man that ever cut a furrow in Jordan County. That’s where we come from, you know. Over in Jordan County,” he said, wistfully. “Never could afford my own place. Always had to hire out to somebody else. But you can ask anybody over there if Phil Devereaux weren’t a farmer.”
“That’s the truth, Mr. Greene,” Mrs. Devereaux said. “Like Phil told you, we never owned an acre of our own, but he was a farmer—still is at heart. That’s why we went to the city. We figured he could get a decent job, and we could save some money and get our own place in a few years.”
Devereaux nodded. “But nothing seemed to go right. When Tony’s Momma died, we took him in. It wasn’t the best time to do it, and it looks like we haint done much by him. Would have been better if we’d been on our own place, and Mary wouldn’t have had to work outside the house. Mebbe than we could have had the time to be parents instead of chasin’ dollars.”
The old man looked at Devereaux, and now instead of the shifty conniver he had originally judged the man, he saw a truer portrait, uncolored by his own prejudice, of a poor struggling oppressed man.
And, as he looked on the Devereauxs and Tony, a new thought began to work like a thawing wind in the old man’s lonely mind. It took a while, and they sat in silence while Greene mulled it. Finally…
“This place haint been worked right in a long time,” he said to no one in particular.
No one answered.
“I guess I just got too old to think about it.”
“Mebbe, if I was to find the right man,” Greene said, glancing at Devereaux.
“Haint askin’ no favors,” Devereaux said.
“Right man to work it on shares.”
“Haint askin’ no…”
“He haint offered no favors, Phil,” Mrs. Devereaux said. “Might be he’s offerin’ us a chance.”
“Don’t want no gifts,” Devereaux said, weakly.
“Wouldn’t be no gift,” Greene said, “you’d have to work for it.”
“There’s another house. Mebbe you seen it—down by the highway? It’s small and needs fixin’ up. We could work the rent into the deal. Mebbe your wife could do some cleanin’ or cookin’ for me. Whadya say? You wanna work for me?”
“I’d help,” Tony said, coming between the men and offering each a smile.
The old man returned the boy’s smile. “You folks got plans for Christmas?”
“Just the three of us…the usual, eatin’ and exchanging gifts,” Mrs. Devereaux said.
“Haint been no Christmas in this house for a long time. Be kind of nice if you folks was to come out Christmas Day. Got a couple fat hens I could kill.”
“Could we mebbe cut one tree?” Tony asked.
“Sure we could. We’ll fix up a tree, have us some good food, and then your…your, ah, Daddy…your Daddy and me will work out the details for our arrangement.”
“Gee! Can we?” Tony asked Devereaux.
“I don’t know what to say,” Devereaux said, wiping at his eyes.
“Just say you’ll come,” the old man said. Maybe I’m a fool, he thought, but looking at the boy he felt good.
Mrs. Devereaux hugged Tony. “We’ll sure be here,” she said.
“Thank you,” Devereaux said, taking Greene’s hand and pumping it.
Greene blushed and laid his other hand on Tony’s thin shoulder. “Hell…uh, H-E-Double Toothpicks!” he muttered.
The sun was going down behind the mountains, and the sky was lilac in the west as they came out of the house.
A whirl of snow blew off the roof to match the cloud of exhaust as Devereaux started the car. Mrs. Devereaux and Tony waved and got in the car. Devereaux tooted the horn and pulled out, tires squeaking in the dry snow that covered the yard.
Another whirl of snow swept down from the eaves as the car disappeared over the rise and the air felt clean and fresh.
This is the first of several Christmas and Christmas mystery short stories that will be going up over the next couple of weeks and they can all be found in our Terrific Tales section.