Short Story: The Cool of the Menacing Tree

German threw the kids into his white truck and started it. He grabbed the half-full bottle resting on the middle hump of the floorboard, put it between his legs, and drove off down their block. They rode easily, heading southward through the valley, taking the surface streets rather than the Hollywood Freeway. Their dad had a way behind the wheel. It was like German almost always got it right, gauging the signals, and when he did have to stop, he glided the machine in with only a minor suggestion of a halt. He was just as good at getting the truck going again, smooth. Keaton noticed the man flipped his hand over, palm up, slipping the gear stick between his middle and ring fingers, to grab the ball of it from beneath when shifting from 2nd to 3rd. He pictured himself doing the same thing and tried to time each shift as perfectly. Tuesday spun the dial on the radio and landed a good song. The German accidentally sung a line from Hard Headed Woman in full voice but quickly caught himself and switched to a humming that softly blended before fading altogether. He avoided any questions the kids might have about such a slip by busying himself with the blinker and pulled into a liquor store parking lot. As soon as the children were beyond the view of German, the two turned and looked at each other with a wide-eyed stare they’d give when sharing something special or secret between them. It worked as a long-standing ritual where they’d keep their eyes fully opened, and then in sequence, force them wider three times in a row. This was all the kids could manage before bursting out laughing because they couldn’t believe their dad had just done that thing, when he made like Cat Stevens, singing out loud in front of them.

The German hoped to himself that he’d pulled it off better than it felt as he marched back out with the brown paper bag. He handed the parcel through the open passenger’s window to Keaton, who placed it on the seat between Tuesday and himself. German then walked to his side of the truck and got in. Keaton took the empty soldier from the middle hump, placed it on the passenger floor mat, and grabbed a cool bottle from the sack. He showed Tuesday how to pop the top off with the seatbelt that dangled beside him. German had taught him how to do it with the flat tongue of the latch when the boy was 5 years old and he thought it best to clue his sister into this trick since she’d now reached that same age. Tuesday took the opened beer in hand and passed it over as they made it onto the street. Her dad took a hit and again put the bottle between his legs. The German was a pro. He demonstrated a remarkable ability for doing all things well and had no problem accelerating, clutching, or braking with the beer’s position. The empty soldier made the sound of rolling around a bit as they turned a corner, so Keaton put a foot on top, while the tongue of the seatbelt clicked a metallic tone when striking the austere interior at each crack in the road, its job done.

They soon entered an unfamiliar neighborhood. It looked much like the area where Tuesday and Keaton lived, in that the roads were as a garden pathway beneath the cover of an overgrowth of trees, but this was indeed a new spot for them. German pulled down a narrow side-street called Laurel Terrace just off of a main boulevard. It ran right along the edge of the southern foothills, which shot straight up from the road quite differently than the hills of their home. Their hills began at a gentle slope with a frontage of broad grassy fields before they went aslant to such extremes. Somebody ahead of them must have carved cutouts in these beginning slopes to make room for the townhouses to be built, if there’d ever been slopes here at all.

German slowed the truck to a stop and Tuesday asked, “What is this place?”

“This is where I live now. This is my new house. I bought the one next door, too.”

“You have two houses, Daddy?” she continued.

“Daddy …?” and he wrinkled up his nose before hitting the beer.

Tuesday was often lost in how to address German, even in how to be a daughter to him. There were times when she wished she could be another Keaton. “Why do you have two houses … Dad?” she tried it his way.

“Because he’s rich!” went Keaton.

“Get the bag and follow me. And don’t forget the dead soldier on the floor.”

German hugged the beer bottle between his bicep and his chest and unlocked the front door. There was a small entryway with a long steep staircase to the left and a large room straight in front of them that was from an earlier garage conversion. The door was open and the kids could see a complex model-train set had been built within. It took up the whole room.

“What’s this? Who’s this for?”

“That’s something I have to talk to you about. Come on up.” And German began to climb the stairs with Tuesday following. Keaton hung back for a moment, contemplating. From the bottom, he could hear his dad opening a sliding glass door.

“Come on up here! I want to show you something.” So Keaton swiftly ran up the many steps, skipping every other one, going two at a time. He set the paper bag on a countertop with the dead soldier beside and saw the glass door led to a back patio.

There wasn’t much yard. The townhouse was practically married to the hill. In place of a lawn was a shaded concrete area and on its far side was the tallest cinderblock wall either of the children had ever seen. It was holding the hill, keeping it back. They looked up together as German pointed.

“I built this deck the last few weekends. Me and one man.”

It was a large wooden structure of raw beams that rose straight out of the ground. More timber formed an overhead frame, and as Keaton stepped from the doorway to under its broad sheltering, he witnessed four additional intersecting supports go from an X to a perfectly even-sided cross. There were many planks spaced uniformly atop the frame that acted both as a ceiling for the patio and a floor for the deck above. He tilted his head far back and saw sunlight streaking through onto helical dust falling from the even lined spaces of the planks. All of it, the full structure, was held together with oversized bolts and hardware. It had the likeness of bold construction from years since gone in that it might last for centuries if not first dismantled by the error of man to make room for that what replaces proper things of value. The children were drawn to its sharp staircase on the side.

“Go on up.” German said and threw his empty soldier into a lidless trashcan. It made the hollowed ring of a tin drum.

There was simply a top-rail banister edging these steps, leading to a height of exactly sixteen feet.

“Get up there. You’ll be alright.”

Keaton ran far ahead of Tuesday but she followed along doing as well as what was expected. They saw everything about it when they reached the landing of the deck. The front joined the uppermost level of the townhouse while the back was anchored into the massive retaining wall and there were closely set guardrails flanking the opposing left and right. All of it worked together as a type of preventative corral. The floor was but three feet shy of the height of the wall and so Keaton jumped over and ran through the wild grass of the hill to a mature oak that hung strangely, ominously, over the platform of the deck.

German stepped to the top but said nothing more. Keaton ran back down to help his sister make the climb over the wall and then they took their time sitting in place along its hard ledge before heading up together through the grass near the oak. It seemed like they could spy on the entire world by the vantage of that view. It was an odd clear day without the curtain of smog, allowing a rare vista over the multitude of houses all the way to the far end of the valley, where they saw more foothills looking so incredibly small that Tuesday tried to pinch them in the space of her fingers. Keaton was brought back from this image when his dad crossed below them on the deck. He unlocked a built-in cabinet that held a cooler and pulled a bottle from it. The German could open a beer with anything and many times used only his teeth. He then placed the loosed cap between thumb and middle finger and flipped it deeply into the hill. It spun tightly and landed just beneath the menacing tree and worked as a vehicle to lead the kids running after it. They scurried around and scanned through grass tall enough to swallow them whole when a long hank of hemp-rope landed at the feet of Keaton.

“You think you could get your ass up into that tree? All the way to that branch, THAT one there, can you see it?” German asked as he pointed above them into the blinding sun.

Keaton shaded his eyes and looked hard for it. And at once it lay bare, the branch his dad wanted him to reach. He slipped his arm through the loop of hank and began the climb. “What will I do when I get there?”

“You’ll use the Bowline, like I taught you.”

“Okay!”

German’s kid could climb like one possessed by the superhero power of antigravity. He made it to the higher branches in record time and found the right one among the many.

“Don’t go too fast, now. You’ll have to scoot a little bit at a time.”

Keaton did just that. He scooted on his bottom a few inches at a time along the chosen bough. He could tell it was level at the beginning but something contested his gut with the detection of a slight incline as he went forward.

“See that crook in the branch? You’re almost there. That’s where I want the knot.”

“Alright!”

Keaton’s seat was steadied by a natural saddle formation granted him just before he reached the crook. There, the branch continued savagely upward at a sharp angle; the wood of it was soon lost to a tapestry of greenery. He placed his hands on the strength of the shooting arm and looked to the leafy canopy above. Everything in and about him was flowing and felt nice.

“Keep your mind on the job. Slide the line off your shoulder and let the length of it fall to me. But, don’t lose it. Don’t let go of your end.”

Keaton did as instructed. He slid the line from his shoulder and let the length of it snake down to his dad who coiled what he received onto the deck. The boy stopped just short letting go, holding his end, keeping it. Keaton looked down to his dad for the next move and there he saw the geometry of the uniformed, evenly aligned, planks converging onto German. There was something about the swaying, something about the soft rhythm of the canopy above verses the rigidity of the plank lines below that caused Keaton to begin swaying on his own, and German could see it happening.

“Don’t look at me! Look at the branch right in front of you. The one that goes straight up! Look at it. Hold on!”

The few feet that were left of the retaining wall, plus the sweep of the hill, and to where he had climbed into the tree, put Keaton’s height at about 20 feet above the deck. German sat his beer down onto the cabinet and prepared for the fall. He would have to catch him clean out of the air. Keaton looked straight ahead as he was told and grabbed fast. The upright branch tried to leap around in his grip but he held tightly and by his intention and effort they soon set poised as one. He saw the rope wedged hard beneath the heel of his right hand, pressing into the ridged bark, where fingers blended with wood. The swaying harmonized and soon the rhythm was back onto him. He was again in tune with the movement of the tree and so Keaton looked along the strength of the arm on up to the soft canopy. Sunlight was breaking through, splashing his face.

“You want to come down?”

“Nope.”

“When you’re ready, you’re going to loop that line around the branch from underneath.”

“I’m ready!”

“Lay on your belly to do it. Get enough slack and swing it over from the left hand to the right.” Keaton measured the needed amount and secured what crossed over the branch with his stomach as he lay forward onto it. He went on the count of three. It took two tries but he got it.

“Take up more slack in the line. There you go, a little more.” Working his right and left together, he fed the line twice around the branch and when it was good, clinched the end between his teeth and sat upright. He made the circle before him.

“The rabbit comes out of his hole.” called his dad. Keaton removed the end from his mouth and pushed it through the circle.

“And runs around the tree!” continued the boy as he wove it around the body of the line.

“That’s right, my son. That’s right!”

“And then he goes back down into his hole.” Keaton replied as he slipped the tail through once more and tugged it with a finish.

“Pull it tight! Make it secure. Your mother will kill us both if anything happens to Tuesday.”

“Did it!”

“Alright, come on down. What do you want to do? Turn around, or scoot backwards?”

“Backwards!”

“Do it.”

The German reclaimed his beer as his boy began the reverse ass-scoot along the tree branch.

The three spent the afternoon on the deck with the two alternating runs up the hill. The shadow of the menacing tree crept upon them as they went about the completion of the swing. German had built the wooden seat in advance. It was a fine work of tongue and groove sections, carefully engraved with an intricate mandala encircling the hole, and stained in dark cherry. He had it stored for almost a week in the same cabinet that held the beer cooler, the tools, and the hemp line. German called Tuesday down from the hill and put her to work. The job was to cut through the swing’s rope at the length her dad had premeasured and wrapped in friction tape. He flipped his Buck knife open with only a thumb and passed it to the kid who stood balanced upon an apple box atop the block ledge. Grabbing on either side of the tape, he pulled the line taut and talked his 5 year old through the cautious activity of sawing through ½ inch hemp. It took her awhile but she didn’t as much as pause and made it through. The cut was so designed to leave room enough for the swing to clear the retaining wall by four feet, and at the end, Keaton made the bottom knot to secure the seat in place. German instructed him to tie an additional thin Mason’s line below it so the swing could be easily reached when it came to rest beside the deck. They towed it from this position back up to the launching site at the tree’s base where the wild grass tickled at their ankles. Keaton and Tuesday took turns swinging in a wide gentle arch and this travel brought their feet from nearly brushing the slope of the hill to high above their father’s rooftop where the cars of the street looked like miniature toys. Each stretched forth, far toward the open expanse of the valley, and then again, returned beneath the confines of the shaded mountainside given by the patronage of the strange tree. German stayed to himself until time was up. He called and the children surfaced from the blanket of foliage. It only took one call. Their father had a different effect on Tuesday and Keaton than did their mother. They always obeyed him the first time around.

An empty soldier flew into the lidless container with the sound of glass upon glass. There were now a lot of bottles in there. It was a constant. The same facts endlessly repeat as a reminder to what is true in life. German moved down from the deck and cracked a fresh one in the kitchen. Keaton ran by in a blur and skipped down every other step to the bottom level of the townhouse. He stood looking into the large room near the entryway, wondering about what it held.

“I haven’t gotten around to that yet. To telling you.”

Keaton was stoic. He only looked up to his dad who was standing in half-light at the top of the stairs.

“I got married and she has a son.”

“What about my mom?”

“She’ll have dinner waiting for you by the time we get there.”

Tuesday ran through the opening of the glass slider with outstretched arms and threw herself into her father. German grabbed the child by the shoulders and pushed her back to arm’s length, making space for them to see rather than to feel. She tried again but he stopped her and shook his daughter’s hand in absence of knowing what else to do. Keaton shut the door to someone else’s room, turned around, and crossed the threshold onto Laurel Terrace, apart and alone, falling from the cool of the menacing tree. ___ END

Kenneth Holt is a writer of fiction working from his native city of Los Angeles. He had a twenty-year career in filmmaking that had him travel the world. Interests include religious and philosophical studies along with art and music. His work includes: THE CUPS THAT HOLD (novella - coming soon from Running Wild Press), LAST OF THE GREAT RATTLESNAKE HUNTERS (Defiant Scribe: February 2019 Issue), WHEN SUNSHINE SPEAKS (Borfski Press: Spring 2018 Issue). COOL OF THE MENACING TREE (Balkan Press: Conclave, The Trickster's Song - February 2018) OUT OF THE CLOSET/INTO THE TOMATO PATCH (Nixes Mate Review: Fall 2017. Reprinted in Automatic Pilot: Winter 2018), AND WITH IT LEFT THE RAIN-SONG (Pushcart Prize nominated by Medusa's Laugh: (twisted) Anthology 2018. Reprinted in Dark Lane Books: Volume 7, Fall 2018), INTO A KEEN AND BLINDING SUN (Ghostlight, Magazine of Terror: Winter Issue 2018), SPRING BENEATH SILENCE (New Rivers Press: American Fiction #16 2017, contest finalist), THE SHOREHAM VEHICLE (Thrice Magazine: #20 August Issue 2017), A BEER IN BASTILLE (TulipTree Publishing: Stories That Need To Be Told Anthology 2016, contest finalist).