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"That old lady is hugging Pa Pa's tree," a gangly 12 year old black girl says to her 15 year old brother. They peer out the window of their apartment. "It's kind of pretty, watching her do that."
"Too bad it's not going to be there much longer," says the boy.
"Hope she knows."
"Of course she knows. Probably why she's here. To say goodbye."
"Sad. It's not like we need another drug store."
"It's not "we" they're worried about," says their mother as she walks into the room.
Maybelline sank to the base of the tree. How was it this terrestrial vestige was still here? Looking up, she saw the for sale sign--of course, there had to be a for sale sign. A pod of kids playing on 'skateboard corner' stopped what they were doing to stare at her. A discussion ensued. One kid flipped a plywood ramp off its mound and when he fell, all the other kids laughed. This deflected some of the attention but they returned to staring at her. She prepared herself but they stayed put, maybe choosing to make fun of her. She couldn't tell. She would return the next morning. She had to go back to her hotel, let her emotions go, let the grief in. She didn't have a choice.
"It's for sale," she thought as the smell of bleach from the hotel pillowcase filled her nose. A bit uncanny, the lot being for sale right now, while she was in town. Finishing her glass of wine with a gulp, she dropped off to sleep, "it's for sale" still in her mind, framing the backdrop of her dreams. "It's for sale," she thought upon opening her eyes in the morning. It would have been so much easier if the tree was gone; this is what she was expecting. That it was still standing in the middle of a city, still so majestic, sublime, divine ... She could just gather acorns from it and plant them in different places throughout Santa Barbara then move on, try to get on the Senior Hostel trip to Costa Rica. She had been wanting to see Costa Rica for years.
"Damn it," she growled into the air of her hotel room. Angrily kicking the stiff hotel sheets off her legs, she got up in a start. She looked out the window of her room. "What am I going to do with an undeveloped lot in Santa Rosa?" she thought. Then again, it would probably be too expensive for her. She would call the realty office and ask the price. It would be exorbitant, she would laugh, hang up, collect some acorns then go home-all respects paid, both to the tree and to Jay, Millicent, Ted--pay her respects to that time when the biggest stress of the day was finding the picnic basket.
She went to breakfast and read the local paper, hoping the desire to call about the lot would pass ...
She called the "Bock Realty Company".
"I had friends back then, early 70's, with the same last name as your agency, Millicent and Ted."
"This is Millicent," said a gravelly voice.
"This has to be Maybelline Emmons because you were always the only one to call me "Millicent" (versus Millie) plus I can still hear Minnesota in your voice."
Maybelline was startled into realizing the painful fact that very few people were left in her life that would know this; that in 1954 when she was 12, her father moved the family, her mother and one sister, out to California to take an electrical job at General Dynamics. Her sister had long since returned to Minnesota.
"Oh my God."
"Oh my God."
"Who would think?"
"It's been what, 40-some years?"
"Somethin' like that. Lord. Are you wanting to move here? Where do you live now?" Millicent felt a wave of emotion hit her.
"Still in Santa Barbara. It's about a day's drive."
"Santa Barbara. And Jay?"
"Left me a few years ago."
"Left you? Jay? I can't even imagine it, and so late in your marriage. Younger woman? It was always "Jay and May". Nobody ever said "Jay" or "May"; just "Jay and May", like it was one person."
"Oh, no," Maybelline chuckled. "I meant he left me here on earth. He died just a few years ago, stroke, the second one. He lived to be 81. We had a good life." She paused. "Gosh it was a crazy couple years, living here with Jay's cousin and his wife. We had nothing and I mean nothing in common. She was a traditional girl from the south. She could never wrap her head around my business degree and the idea that Jay and I would run the locksmith business together. When Miles would show something to Jay, I insisted on learning it too. She had such disdain for me because I wasn't carrying-out my wifely duty--having babies. After Jay learned the ropes from Miles, that uncomfortable time with them, my dad started dropping hints. He was so lonely after mom died so we moved to Santa Barbara and there we stayed. I'm still there but sold the business, the house. Now I'm on one side of a duplex. It's okay. I miss Jay and the dog, Lockey, ha. I lost them both the past few years. It was very hard." She paused then added, "still is."
"When was that?"
"When was what exactly?"
"That you and Jay left Santa Rosa?"
"1974," Millicent repeated, marveling. "Long time ago."
"Somehow, yes, it became a long time ago," Maybelline repeated. They paused.
"You wanna' cat? I know where you can get a damn cat! Two, three!"
Maybelline laughed. "I know! That lot comes with a few, huh?"
"How many did they have when you two were living with them? Five?"
"Cats?" Maybelline asked
"No, kids, sorry. We're going all over the place. Been too long."
"Four but by the time Jay took over Mile's business, it was five."
"It's was Women's Liberation then, remember? What a crock," Millicent coughed-out.
"I think we women had a harder time with one another than we did with the men."
"I'm sorry about Jay and your pup, Maybelline. You two were the only couple I thought would stay together for life. You had each other, as best friends. So no kids I take it?"
"No. That was a conscious decision. He got a vasectomy when he was, I don't know, 35?" Maybelline laughed. "Our kids were dogs from the pound." She paused. "There are days, Millicent, when I don't get out of bed ... This is your agency then?"
"Not anymore. I'm actually just covering for my daughter-in-law. I turned it over to my son, Jim, and his wife. I think she's about to make her first big commercial sale and in fact--" Millicent stopped herself. She started again. "I still do a little on my own but for the most part I'm retired." She paused. "I remember that land too. Gosh it was pretty. The wildflowers. A lot of big oaks then too. Hundreds. Thousands maybe."
"Our picnics. It was so lovely. So simple."
"How could I forget? Now if we tried it, we'd probably get arrested, and anyway, there's no land left to sit on. Whatever happened with Jay's family farm in Oregon? They sell out? Everything covered in houses now like here?"
"No, no. It's quite wonderful, really. After Jay's father died and his mother went to live with her sister in Seattle, Jay's younger brother and his wife took it over and now their kids are running it, doing organic farming, large scale. It's doing well. I think it will stay in the family. They want the land left open, undeveloped. It's so refreshing. I still visit when I can, and help out." She paused. "I remember you and Ted divorced--"
"Lord, at least 25 years ago now. I was in my 50's. It's so stereotypical, I can't even talk about it. It's too embarrassing. Younger woman and all that crap but he's moved on since her. I've lost count. I always thought you were after Ted," Millicent chuckled.
"Or maybe I was worried Ted was after you. I bet you're still beautiful. You might actually find him attractive now, Maybelline. He might be in between women too. Guess he's playing tennis at his retirement place in San Diego. You want his phone number?"
"Now you're being ridiculous, Millicent. You were beautiful ... now too, I'm sure. You remember? I used to always tell you that you reminded me of --"
"No, I am not. Trust me. No, I am not."
"Did you ever find anyone else?"
"Lots and lots and lots of men. So many men. Yeah, I'm a regular siren." She released a raspy chuckle. "Almost, but I came to the conclusion I was perfectly happy on my own."
"I had a little scare with cancer, or not. It was benign. Even bought a wig. Never needed it. My shoulder aches sometimes from when Jay and I went to--it's nothing really. How about you? Are you okay? You're coughing."
A call was coming in. Millicent ignored it.
"It all goes so fast, Maybelline. So fast. You know, I never did get to Paris, or Alaska. Isn't that sad?"
"You can still go."
Millicent continued, "it all goes so fast. There was so much I wanted to do. So much. I wanted to see the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Victoria Falls. You know. All that stuff."
"I thought you and Ted did see the Pyramids?"
"No, no. We just talked about it--like I am talking to you about it now. You?"
"Yes, we traveled; Europe, Japan, Chile, other places ..." Maybelline mumbled on, now in a reverie with herself.
Millicent cut it off with her own, "then the grandchildren come and of course, you want to be around them. You don't ... you can't remarry." She paused. "There was so much..." her voice drifted off.
"Why didn't we stay in touch?"
"I don't know. We kind of did. I got your Christmas cards until they stopped a few years ago. You got mine?"
"--until they stopped a few years ago," Maybelline finished.
Sensing a strange faraway sadness in the voice of her old friend, Maybelline blurted out,"we should go to dinner. Would you like to go to dinner? I would love to see you. We're not dead yet!"
Millicent immediately laughed, attempted to say something but was interrupted by a coughing fit.
"Millicent, are you okay?"
"Yeah. Wrong pipe. Just took a slug of water and it went down the wrong pipe. I think the word "dead" did it. How about I bring the paperwork for that lot, the tree? Don't you want to save the tree? You said this was in large part why you came--to see if the tree is still here. Your timing ... You didn't know and here it is, right this very minute, the lot's for sale. You called, you're talking to me, or what's left of me, and guess what? I happen to be the real estate agent for that lot, the tree. You can buy it right now Maybelline. Right now. This is just too uncanny. It's meant to be. I'm going to bring the paperwork."
"Mercy, Millicent. I don't even know how much it is."
Another call was coming through. Millicent ignored this one too.
"How much do you have to spend? Can you buy it for say, $35,000? Do you have that?"
"That's very reasonable considering its location. I guess I thought it would be a lot more." She paused. "What the hell would I do with it at my age Millicent? I'm almost 80 years old."
"Bullshit. I'M the one that's almost 80 years old. You were younger than me by what, four-five years? Why, what's the matter with you? You sick?" Millicent held her hand over the mouthpiece to cough a good 30 seconds. Maybelline, hearing nothing, kept talking. Millicent didn't hear everything Maybelline said but she did hear "aside from my shoulder, I feel great. I'm walking. My heath is quite good".
In between the coughing, her hand still over the mouthpiece, Millicent quickly inquired about Maybelline's financial situation.
"$35,000? Actually, I have that and easily. I'm actually quite well off. Jay, God bless 'im, had a generous life insurance policy for us, for me. I did very well when I sold the business, the house. I have to say I do have it. Who owns it right now?"
"Some old woman, her kids circling her like vultures to sell it off. It's meant to be May. It's not going to last. The price will go up and soon. It was just zoned commercial. Someone is going to buy it and put something on it. No one that has called about it could give two shakes about that tree and in fact, they mention cutting it down...using it for firewood, selling it to a timber company. Nobody gives a damn about the tree."
"That's terrible. That beautiful old tree? Is that even allowed nowadays?"
"Anything is allowed nowadays, Maybelline, even if it isn't." She paused. "It's all a little uncanny. I think it's meant to be. Think about Jay. What a beautiful thing to do."
"What would I do with it?"
"Make it into a park! Save it. They'll' love it, the people here."
"But it's a mess. I mean, yes there's our dear old tree but the lot's got garbage on it, skateboard ramps, tires, cats. I think I saw part of a car. I don't know, Millicent."
"Hire someone to clean it up. I have a few folks you can call. Make it into a park and name it after Jay. Figure it out later. Imagine standing there, watching someone cut that tree down. Just imagine it."
"I don't know anything about how to take care of land, the tree."
"Hogwash. Listen to yourself, May. You garden don't cha', and anyway, that tree has obviously done just fine taking care of itself." She named a restaurant and after giving directions, ordered Maybelline to be there within the hour. A call was coming in yet again, and yet again, Millicent ignored it.
"You can get that," Maybelline offered. "It might be your daughter-inlaw."
"Kyle's in the office now, another agent, and if he doesn't it get it, it will just roll over to voice mail."
"But I thought--"
Millicent cut her off.
"Maybelline, I'm, well, different. I'm not well."
"You're not still smoking ... your voice--"
"No, but the smoking smoked me. I have a silly little oxygen tank I have to wheel around with me everywhere I go so you'll be having dinner with the two of us. I don't want you to be shocked. I'm not the same. I'm not pretty anymore. I'm a shriveled up old woman now."
Another call demanded attention. This time both of them ignored it.
"Oh Millicent. Please don't, you--"
"I'll see you there in about 20 minutes, with the paperwork. Bring your checkbook. I can't ignore how uncanny this is, and I won't."
Looking at her old friend, Maybelline tried to conceal her shock. She was relieved Millicent cut her off from saying "you always reminded me of Jessica Lange". Thank God that didn't make it out of her mouth. The little old lady she was looking at now reminded her of the dead leaves on the ground, curled and dried up from the drought, too stressed to display all their colors, crackly. She didn't have any real problems, not like what Millicent was facing. When Millicent told her, "you're still just as pretty" and "you look fit as an ox", beside that Maybelline would have preferred "fiddle", she felt guilty. Despite the grief and loneliness, she was fit as an ox, or more appropriately, a fiddle because she still held the shape of one; rather amazing since on many days, she had to force herself out of bed, feeling it some kind of accomplishment to do nothing else but put on her clothes, shoes, and go out the door, though once out the door, things got simpler--she could walk; the park across the street from her duplex was one reason she moved there. She also drew off the discipline of basically running Jay's locksmith business in its last few years-- answering the phone at all hours, making sure they got paid, getting the van fixed. At the end, of the business, not Jay, not yet anyway, this also meant covering for Jay, going with him to make sure he completed the jobs, got everything back in the van, they got paid, he locked or unlocked things as he was supposed to. To just get up required so much less energy, surely she could handle it.
A few people in the restaurant came 'round to ask Millicent, "Millie", how she was doing, if she was feeling any better. To Maybelline, it seemed more like they were saying goodbye. Something was going on. After they were alone again, Maybelline tilted her head at Millicent, the look on her face silently imploring, "so tell me what's really going on" but Millicent ignored her, pressing for Maybelline to write out 'that check' for $35,000. Millicent spread a line of pens out in front of Maybelline. Incredulous, she watched as Millicent shoved each piece of paper in front of her, pointing and saying only "sign here, initial here". Millicent would fill in 'the other stuff' later. Remembering her friend's determination (or was it bossiness?), Maybelline followed orders and dutifully signed all the papers, Millicent grabbing the check out of her hand the second after she tore it out. After it was done, Millicent ate a little pile of cottage cheese then launched into a bad coughing fit during which Maybelline had no idea what to do. Millicent then announced to Maybelline she was very tired and needed to go home. When Maybelline offered to drive her home, she adamantly refused, giving Maybelline a little peck on the cheek, saying they would get together again soon. Still hacking, she took herself and her little wheeled oxygen tank through the door of the restaurant leaving Maybelline alone with a pile of papers in front of her that declared her the owner of a lot that used to be part of a 25,000-acre ranch, a 25,000-acre ranch covered in wildflowers, hawks, deer, bobcats, oak trees, all but two-acres of it now under somebody's bathroom. Confused, shaken, Maybelline ordered a second glass of wine then headed back to her hotel room where she quickly fell asleep.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Treed"
Copyright © 2018 Virginia Arthur, Ecological Outreach Services (EOS).
Excerpted by permission of Virginia Arthur.
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