Everything was fine. We were fine. We were a family. Until the tree came up through the floor. It didn’t happen in a day, or a month, not even in a year, though by a year’s time we could feel the strangeness of it. It wound through our lives like blood courses through veins, spreading out and consuming us from within. Yes, we’re still talking about the tree. It’s not a metaphor. It’s not symbolic. It was rough, with shaggy bark, and green on top, OK?
My father thought it was cool. It made us the cool family. I guess with his corporate job, and all that kissing ass all day long, which he says he won’t do – but if you’re not telling the boss – if you’re telling everyone else – then you’re doing it – I guess he always felt disappointed that we never did anything cool. Like have lava lamps and mood music and throw a neighborhood party. Like build a hot rod in the driveway. I think deep down, the tree, for him, was all that stuff, and it found us. It burst up through the floor, and he was so happy, and none of us wanted him to lose that glee, so we looked for reasons to love it too.
Mom, well, she was always saying how she wasn’t a traditional housewife. You know, she had her online shop, and she took trips by herself, and she didn’t join the PTA or do scouting. She wrote short stories and had a reading group in our living room. You can imagine what they thought of the tree, though, can’t you? Mom wanted it to be all right, too. Some part of her remembered getting high at rock concerts, and she wanted to roll with it. it was cool, it was punk, it was so not the other moms. But the other moms agreed, and they started finding other reasons to have the book group elsewhere. Down the street. Mrs. Jensen had a new outdoor fire pit, and it was so cozy with all that lighting. For Mom, the tree crawled up into her life and made it feel small, and something of the past. I think maybe she felt that way about us, too. We lived inside her, and now she lived inside the world we made around us, the world that inevitably included us. Oh, she loves us, she does. But you can love someone and still find your life circumscribed by them, and reduced to laundry and dishes.
We loved the tree for Dad, and we were quietly enraged at the tree for Mom. If we put aside what we felt with them, and for them, my brother and I were scared shitless about the tree. It’s probably like what happens when you’re going along, and you’re still a kid, and suddenly your parents decide to have an infant again, fifteen years later. It’s a shove, you know? They don’t say it, but it means you’re almost grown up, and you’ve got to get it together, but you know you don’t have shit together, not at all. Nothing is together. And you think maybe it never will be, because it should be by now. And you feel like shit, because you’re a kid who isn’t supposed to be a kid anymore. Or it’s the other way around – I don’t know. The tree was just one more thing shoving us out into the world, feeling like failures before we even began. Feeling like everyone else got a head start on things, and we were so far behind, because maybe we were stupid. Incurably so. All right, so that’s one of us anyway – me – but how do I know what my brother felt?
It’s simple. One night, we’re sitting there, and Mom and Dad are out. They’re out having a date like the cool parents do, and my brother walks up and kicks the tree. He just kicks it, and then looks at me, and I laugh, and I go over and kick it too. It never did anything to us, sure, and it’s actually kind of beautiful. I almost felt bad, but it also felt good. Like when someone you kind of care about gets hurt, but you’re also kind of mad at them, so it’s almost fun that they got hurt, except you know that’s wrong. But we laughed then, and kicked it some more. We didn’t kick the shit out of it. I know I say ‘shit’ a lot. Probably because I want to be one of the cool kids. I do OK in school, and you’ve got to compensate, you know – by spicing up your language, so people don’t think you’re a dork. Parents with enough money – not too much, but enough, and I feel lame for it. I feel like a tree growing out of the floor. I said it wasn’t a metaphor. Metaphors are stupid. But I’ll leave it like that. Sometimes, it’s just what I feel.
So, what happened is the tree didn’t stop. It didn’t stay cool, in other words. Even my dad started looking at it like it was turning on him – his once chance to be the hotrod Dad. One morning, we found it pushing up through the ceiling. It had been for days, but we just didn’t notice. You start taking a thing for granted, even a thing like a giant tree growing in your living room, when it’s there enough. You probably have a friend like that – around so much, you don’t even really notice when he’s picking his nose, or if he falls asleep on your couch. So the tree was breaking our ceiling. At first, it was still kind of cool, but then Dad said it was going to start wrecking the frame and end up going through the roof. He called a professional tree cutter, but the guy wouldn’t do any work to a tree that was in a living room. He said something about the liability being too much. Mom was royally pissed, and I thought Dad might actually cry for a minute, but he didn’t. He got pissed too.
They called another contractor, and he started talking about bringing in a structural engineer, and that was going to cost a fortune. So in the end, Dad got a chain saw. He was going to be the cool Dad after all. Dad, as far as I know, had never used a chain-saw, but the guy down at Lowe’s walked him through it – gave him some kind of mini-class on the thing, so he was feeling pretty confident. But it all drained out of him when he got it home and looked at that tree. It was getting bigger all the time. By then, pieces of the house were falling in on us.
But you know how when you commit to a thing, and you’re in so far, you won’t back out even if you know it’s a really bad idea? It’s why more people aren’t good poker players. What’s that song Dad quotes some times – “you gotta know when to fold ’em”? Jeez, he’s like a hundred years when he talks about music, but it means, basically, know when to lay down your cards. Know when the problem is bigger than you are – so much bigger that you’re going to hurt yourself on it, if you don’t acknowledge that it has your ass kicked. Yeah, I said “ass” too – shit and ass – my brother’s looking at me and grinning. I’m the one telling it, so just chill out. I’ll call you when I need something dumb to say at the end. My brother’s good at endings. Always was.
Anyway, Dad squares off with this thing like he’s a last survivor taking out a giant alien invader that’s wiped out the whole earth. He’s wearing a denim shirt. I didn’t even know my Dad had a denim shirt. He’s always wearing those pastels. And brown ties. Like he’s afraid he’s going to piss someone off and get in a fight, and the brown tie is his camouflage. But he’s wearing all denim for this, and he starts up the chain-saw, and you can see he thought it sounded better at the store. He got an electric. You can’t use a gas chain saw indoors. Think about it. We could all die. Never mind the tree cork-screwing it’s way into our house, we might die of smoke inhalation, or whatever it is – exhaust fumes. So, electric chain-saw in hand, orange extension cord pulling back out of it not one, but three times, so he has to start it again, he finally lays into the tree.
No fumes I get, but I don’t think you’re supposed to breathe a cloud of sawdust, either. Or get splinters in your face. We all got out of there, and Dad was in there, no goggles, going at it with the tree like a prizefight. I felt as if were killing some giant elephant. Slowly. I just wanted it to be over. The tree wasn’t screaming, but the chain-saw made it sound like that. It was awful, and I was ready to forgive the tree if it would just stop growing, and we could all go back to the way things were. We’d be the weird family with the tree poking through the top of their living room, instead of the cool family with an interior garden and benches and sitar music and Buddha statues and all that. But it’s OK. Mom could probably just have a fire pit added out back, and the book club would come back. Dad could get away from the brown ties and do a little electric chain-saw art in front of the garage. And my brother and I could kick back a little longer and not feel so pushed all the time by every little thing. Like we were the little birds facing the edge of the high up nest.
Needless to say, the chain-saw thing did not go well. Dad wrecked the chain-saw, but not before making a couple of big holes in the wall. The tree was still there, and the house was a Home Improvement mess. We ended up eating out that night. Mom and Dad had a fight. They don’t do it often, but that kind of stress will get anybody. And my brother and I, well, we decided, without really saying it, to accept the fact that our days in the family home were numbered no matter how you look at it. We were almost grown up. We had jobs at Starbucks and Starbucks, respectively – two different locations – and the truth is the world was probably always going to be too big for us, just like the house got too small. My brother’s rolling his eyes, but he’s not arguing any.
So I told you the tree ended things for us. I also said it wasn’t all at once. Yeah, we stayed there another year. I started looking at colleges. My brother did too – they’re getting them earlier, now. And Mom and Dad started looking at apartments, instead of houses. Only they were small apartments, meaning I got to sleep in the part of the living room that was designated an office (they put up a partition for me), and my brother got a closet. They don’t call it a closet – they called it a dorm, because it was too small for a bedroom, and they wanted him to feel like he was getting ready for college too. But it was a closet.
And there’s another thing. They’re splitting. You can’t really see it happening just yet, but you can feel it. Mom is itching for something else to do besides be married. Dad – well I think he just wants something to change so badly that he doesn’t really care what it is. It’s like letting the house go just made him want change all the more. It wasn’t enough. It was just symbolic of something else. There, that part was symbolic. The house, not the tree.
My brother’s laughing. He won’t say it, but we’ve both cried a little, now and then. It’s sad, but it’s also part of a lot of changes happening at once, and I think that makes it hard for the heart to concentrate on any one source of breaking. Yeah, I’m not going to cry right now, either. So, the thing is, we’re kind of coming apart. I’m already out of the house. But the world isn’t ending. There’s good and bad mixed together, you know? So what you think about changes depending on the moment. It’s like how people still eat and drink at funerals. You still have homework you’ve got to do.
The tree broke us, but I don’t hate the tree anymore. If a tree can come up through our lives and we end up going off in separate directions because of it, then it wasn’t really the tree’s fault, anyway. It’s like it could have been anything, anything else as easily as a tree. That’s why I say it’s not a metaphor. Because a metaphor represents something specific. It wasn’t anything specific. It was a lot of non-specific things, gathered around something that grew up in the middle of them. Something was just different than nothing. That’s all. The tree was a fire, a flood, a light post, an alien, a barking dog, a screaming elephant. It was a hot rod in the driveway and Buddha dolls on a mantle. It was a thing, and a thing is all it took.
My brother has something to say, now. He wants me to write it. So here goes: the tree was probably there first. It was a seed that was lying under the floor all along. And one day a tear or a drop of sweat or just a little spill got it going, and we had built a house on top of it. We thought the house would be the final answer to things, a permanent part of the world, but a house isn’t that. The world is made of trees, and things that grow, and a house is just the bodies of trees you’ve pulled down and stitched together into something you like better for the moment. But the trees keep coming, or there’d never be any houses. What the tree did was bring the living world back into our living room, and wake us up to it. And when you’re awake, sometimes you yawn and stretch and decide you’re not going to do your homework today, and maybe never again. The tree reminds you what you are, and then you might decide to grow some, or you might just go running across the world like an elephant.
Wow. That’s my brother. I’m going to hug him when I get done writing this. He always says things more simply than I do. Ass kicking, that’s what I’m going to do to him. And then hug him again, because I’m going back to campus in a few days, and it’ll be a while before I see him again and, by then, who knows? We have dinner, tonight, all of us. It’s a little weird, maybe a little tense or awkward, but I think it’s OK. We want what we want – it’s like that tree never asked anyone if it was all right to grow up through another person’s floor and out through their roof. Some things you just can’t ask other people about, or ask for, or to decide for you. You just do them. You go where you think the light and the rain will feed you. That’s what I’m doing. My little bro’ goes next. Mom and Dad, they’re figuring their things out, too.
We were fine, everything was fine. And then we had a tree.