XMAS TREES

Mitchell Hagerstrom

The trees began falling a few days after Xmas. Susan saw her first as she walked home from the corner bakery. It caught her eye as it dropped past the second story of the apartment building across the street. Bottom heavy, it landed on its base with a smack and then toppled over on its side. There were still strands of tinsel on some of the branches.

Hanging her coat in the hall, she called out to her husband: I just saw a Xmas tree commit suicide. She could see him hunched over the desk under the front windows. She went on to the kitchen and opened the bakery bag on the table. The rolls are still warm, she called.

He pushed back his chair. As she watched, he stood staring out the window for a minute and then came into the kitchen. Are the rolls still warm? he asked.

I wish we’d had a tree this year, she said.

Christ, Susan, would you lay off it.

The next day she spent several hours watching the six-story apartment building across the street. She saw one tree fall; she saw a fourth floor window open and the head of an elderly woman lean out and look down, then the elderly head drew back inside and the head of a tree appeared. Quickly, the whole tree was out the window. It hung in mid-air for a second and then dropped, twisting to an upright position before it hit the pavement.

The following morning as soon as her husband left for work, Susan began making cookies. She rolled the dough very thin and cut rounds with a water glass. With a knife she tried to carve out angels. She couldn’t get the wings quite right, but she sprinkled them and the rounds with sugar and baked them. When they were still hot out of the oven she made holes in them for hanging.

At noon she called her husband. What are you doing? she asked.

The usual, he said, non-support. He was a deputy D.A. assigned to Family Law.

Are you working late tonight? she asked.

Not tonight, he said. What’s for dinner?

She told him she hadn’t decided. She hung up and went out, circling her block and then the next block before she found the right one.

A neighbor she didn’t know — Susan and her husband were new to the city — rode up with her in the elevator. She figured he was giving her funny looks, but she kept her eyes on the floor.

She set the tree down in a corner of the living room. Then she took the box of paper clips from the desk and counted out three dozen and bent them open. Some of the cookies crumbled but most held. When she finished she wished she had a star for the top. She fixed herself a cup of hot chocolate and added a splash of brandy, then sat herself on the sofa, cupped her hands around the hot mug and hummed to herself. She tried to sing but she couldn’t remember enough words. She couldn’t remember any one song all the way through.

Late in the afternoon she opened the window and threw it out. She was just putting the vacuum away when her husband came home.

He walked over to the desk. Why is this window open? he asked, slamming it shut. Christ, there’s crumbs all over. He moistened a finger and lifted a crumb to his mouth. What are these, anyway? I think I’ll have some.

Cookies, she said, I made cookies for…for….

For? he prompted.

For Hazel, for the manager. Sorry, she said, none left.

 

 

During the following year Susan settled into her new life. She found a job teaching a two classes at the junior college, and she enrolled one evening a week in a class at a nearby cooking school. Both she and her husband made some friends, but no one special.

In August they drove north for a vacation, back to the town they had come from. The place seemed awfully small after the city and they left a few days early, driving slowly back down the coast, stopping overnights at places they found listed in a guidebook. All in all, the vacation was tiring and Susan was glad to get back to the city and their routines.

One night in early December, on her way home from cooking class, she passed a Xmas tree lot. She was carrying a panettone she had made in class and was nearly home when she turned and walked back to the lot.

It occupied a corner where an old 3-story Victorian had been torn down that spring. The trees looked like a dense stand of trees in a real forest, the scene lit by a string of lights propped on tall, precarious poles. Susan studied the trees for a while and mentally chose one on the edge she thought particularly lush and charming.

A broad-shouldered man wearing a plaid flannel shirt, a man who looked like he himself had chopped down the trees, came over and asked if he could help.

Susan pointed to the tree she liked. What kind is that? she asked.

Silvertip, he told her. They last good, better than Douglas.

Thank you, she said. I was just looking.

Later that night, during one of the programs they watched, Susan waited for a commercial, then turned to her husband and asked if he’d seen the Xmas tree lot.

What lot?

On the corner of Webster.

He shook his head.

Susan moved closer to him on the sofa. I think we should get a tree this year, she said.

Trees are for families, he said — the same argument he had used last year.

We could have some people over, she suggested.

Who?

I don’t know. We could think of someone.

The program came back on.

So, she said, could we have a tree?

Shh, he said, I can’t hear.

 

 

On Xmas day Susan rose early to get the turkey ready. First she put it in a brown paper bag, something she had seen her mother do years ago, to cook long and slow for the planned early-afternoon meal. Then she set the table, using new linen napkins and arranging holly at the base of the candlesticks. She had bought the holly and some mistletoe from the man in the plaid flannel shirt. In the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room she thumbtacked the spray of mistletoe.

Her husband slept the whole morning, only getting up in time for coffee and toast before dressing for their guests.

Who are these people, anyway? he asked.

I met him in the elevator, she said. They’re new in town.

Her husband raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

Everyone else already had plans, she told him.

What kind of dressing, he asked?

Plain, she said, as the doorbell rang.

While her husband answered the door, Susan arranged crackers around a cheeseball and carried the tray to the living room.

I believe you know Mark and Kitty, her husband said.

Susan smiled, and was momentarily distracted as the large overstuffed chair and been moved up near the coffee table, leaving bare the corner where she had planned to put the Xmas tree. She quickly set the tray down and said hello to Mark, then extended her hand to his wife. I don’t believe we’ve met, she said. Kitty, is it?

Katherine. But everyone calls me Kitty.

It’s a bit early for martinis, her husband said, so can I get everyone a glass of wine?

Kitty doesn’t drink, Mark said.

Some apple juice? Susan suggested.

Kitty smiled and nodded.

Over drinks, crackers, and the cheeseball, the couples talked about the unusually warm weather, the high price of apartments, and the men’s jobs.

I was planning on working, Kitty said.

I only work part time, Susan said, but I’m thinking of going to full time.

This is the first I’ve heard about that, her husband said.

Well, I have, she answered. I have thought about it.

While her husband and their guests were seating themselves at the table, Susan carried in the turkey, and then the side dishes. When her husband began carving he made a mess of it. I can’t do this, he admitted.

Let me, Susan offered. You can pour us more wine.

He poured the drinking three more wine and then held the bottle poised over Kitty’s glass. Just a tiny bit with dinner? he asked.

Kitty covered the top of the glass with her hand.

My wife’s pregnant, Mark said.

Susan stopped carving. How wonderful! she said. You know, she added, we’re going to have a baby, too.

Her husband’s face turned red, and he cleared his throat several times.

Then should you be drinking? Mark asked.

Oh, Susan said, I’m not pregnant yet. She looked at her husband and then smiled at her guests.

After dinner they moved back to the living room for dessert.

Just pumpkin? her husband said, when she handed him his plate.

We always had just pumpkin for Xmas at home, she told him. Then she turned to Kitty. When you were little, how did your family celebrate the holidays? I mean, did you do anything special?

Well, my mother played the piano and we sang a lot.

Did you always have a tree? Susan asked.

Of course, huge ones. Mark and I only got a little one for the apartment, but I love the scent of it.

Mark began to hum. Does everyone know that one? he asked.

O Little Town of Bethlehem? Susan guessed.

That’s it.

I’m afraid I don’t remember all the words, she said.

Mark began to sing and Kitty joined him. They had beautiful voices and they knew all the words.

Susan hummed along and held out her glass to her husband for more wine.

 

 

The next day she was up early with a powerful hangover. She sat down at the desk and put her head in her hands. She sat that way for a long time. She remembered a certain tree from her childhood, a tree that looked a lot like the one she had pointed out to the man in the plaid flannel shirt. After Xmas that year, they had put it out in the side yard and hung bits of fruit and bread on it for the birds. It had stayed green well into spring. Then her father had put it into the shredder and then on the compost pile.

She reached across the desk and opened the window. Both the sky and the building across the street were gray. A soft rain was falling. She shivered a little, rubbed her arms, and then began opening the desk drawers and pulling out the contents and tossing everything out the window: bills, envelopes, pens and pencils, note pads, all her husband’s papers, all her own papers.

What the hell! she heard her husband’s voice behind her.

Go back to bed, she said without turning. A few of the papers were still floating down and someone on the sidewalk was staring up at her from under his or her umbrella. Susan could not tell if it was a man or a woman.

What the hell! her husband repeated, coming over to the desk and leaning out the window. Susan leaned out beside him. The wet street and sidewalk were sprinkled with sodden pieces of paper and the person under the umbrella was walking rapidly away.

-Mitchell Hagerstrom

December 7, 2012 6:32 pm