By Chris Fryer
It was the summer out of a snowman’s nightmare. Record highs, even at night. I came home from work a sweaty, flustered mess, fresh from an office that didn’t believe in air conditioning, and dragged myself to the kitchen for a glass of cold tap water. Staring through the window at my wilted garden around the roots of an ancient oak tree in the backyard, I noticed a pair of tattered shoes among the hydrangeas. Curious, I went out to see where the sneakers had come from.
“Hello there,” said the old man in my tree.
“Hello back,” I said, stepping into the shade of the wide branch on which my guest was straddled.
He wore farmer’s overalls. Bare feet dangled at the bottom of two hairy, honey-colored legs. His arms were folded behind his bald head, his curved back resting against the trunk. I’d never seen anyone look more comfortable.
“I won’t be long,” he told me, speaking in a wise, slow-burn drawl like someone looking at the sky and predicting a turn in the weather. “I can’t imagine it’ll take more than a day or two for Chester to find this tree.”
“Who’s Chester?” I asked.
The old man bit the inside of his cheek and gave a solemn nod. “It’s my fault he got out. You should never turn your back on a bird and an open window, my friend.”
“You lost your bird?”
The old man shrugged. “Well, we’re not really in the position to lose things, are we? What ever made us think these things were ours to begin with? No, no.” He laughed, and his laughter made me feel young. “I’m afraid the only thing we’re actually in the position to lose is our minds.”
I looked at his shoes. “How long have you been here?”
“A coupla hours. No more. It’s been nice, spending time with your tree. I get the feeling not many folks spend time with ‘er anymore.” He patted the branch like the arm of a close friend sharing a moment. It made me jealous. I lived by this tree for two years and felt a pang of betrayal. He saw a change on my face. “I mean, I like what you did with the garden,” he said.
We both studied the dying hydrangeas, the wilted seedlings of azaleas, and the paled buttercups. My first and probably last garden.
The old man said, “You don’t trim enough. Your yard is smothering itself.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Nature has a quiet way of speaking to us.” The old man looked at his hands. “A little trimming. Some guidance. Water. You could have a healthy garden here.”
I asked, “What’s your name?”
“You said something about a bird,” I reminded him.
“You think he’s gonna come to my tree?”
Erik said, “My grandson found him here.”
Erik sat sidesaddle on the branch and rested his chin on his hands, elbows on his knees. He looked ten years old, for a moment, swinging his lanky legs. “This used to be the Porters’ lawn, before you. Luke mowed it every Saturday. One time, Chester must’ve fallen out of his nest. Bad fall, too. He broke his wing. Luke—my grandson, Luke—brought him to my house. I live two blocks down from here. We set him back to health and I taped up his wing, fed him, gave him water, and my grandson—he left for college before Chester was healthy, so I kept him.”
I reached out and touched the tree trunk, tempted to climb it. Quickly, I glanced at my watch. Dinner plans with friends were looming and I still hadn’t taken a shower. What was I supposed to do about the man in my backyard?
“How do you know he’ll come here?” I asked.
“If you could go anywhere, but you knew nothing of the world, where would you want to go?” Erik replied, reclining once again against the trunk, one leg on either side of the branch. “We never forget our first home. I think no matter how far you go from where you’re from, it always has you. Like a flower or a tree. We may spread seeds once we’ve grown, but our roots remain the same.”
“What if he doesn’t come back?”
The old man nodded with his eyes closed. “That kind of thinking won’t get you far, my friend. Thinking in negatives is like planting a garden in cement. You’ve already doomed yourself if you frame a thought in a setting it won’t grow.” He looked down at me with a smile. “No, no. Positivity is the only sustainable frame of mind. Positivity begets positivity, whereas negativity begets nothing.”
I said, “It’s not always easy to be positive.”
He said, “It’s easier than you think.”
The wind blew. We listened as the leaves translated.
“I have to meet my friends for dinner,” I told him apologetically.
He didn’t respond, but instead yawned and cozied up against the tree. He didn’t seem to grasp the idea that he was trespassing. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him to leave, which was almost as surprising as how much I wanted to stay and chat with him. My friends would never believe this.
When I came back that night from the bar, a little drunk, I wanted to hang out with my new tree-dwelling friend, but the branches were bare. Erik was gone. I stumbled my way into the garage and found an old ladder and wobbled my way up into the tree, to where my guest had sat, and in the bark I saw two names carved, one human, one bird, with the old man’s advice added underneath.
About the Author
Chris Fryer was born to tell stories. Amidst figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, he’s been submitting short stories, working on a novel, and actively building the blog Thousand Thoughts. On a path toward a teaching career, he looks forward to teaching English and creative writing in the future.
This column originally appeared on Niche’s website on December 12th, 2012.