a cottage up the drive
this guy used to live in the cottage up the drive suddenly moved out. was our neighbor and we asked him for dinner after we’d moved in, downhill from him, next door. dinner was awkward, all he talked about was shopping for discount foods at save a lot. he'd buy food out of date, cans or frozens, he said it was cheaper that way, and just as tasty. we felt weird. we selected our food with great care, read ingredient labels and shopped at whole foods or city market, places diagonally opposite to save a lot, likely better known as spend a lot. once i saw him standing at new seasons, in the rapid check line, his cart way full. people were grumbling, he paid with stamps. we had made a sumptuous meal, fresh tomato salad, garden like. with the green thick, extra etc. olive oil and buffalo mozzarella, veal scaloppini in heavy cream, deep fried dover sole, no mrs. paul’s in this kitchen. two kinds of wine and a small plum tart mit schlag for dessert. he didn't drink and couldn't have butter, nor cream, let alone sugar. We should have had spaghetti and meatballs instead. after that we almost never saw him again, which was just as well. he frowned at my small garden when he walked by with the rent check.
we'd only seen the little house where he lived from the outside, as we passed by his driveway. i got a glimpse inside once, when i knocked at the door to hand him mail had come to our box by mistake. he opened the door wide enough to stick his nose out, then reached through the crack. all i could see at that instant was a dark inside, an outline of a shadowy staircase, when he shut the door in my face, no word for my trouble. late in september i saw him in passing. he sat bent over on a plastic lawn chair clipping his toenails. past him a door, wide to a murky inside, a flickering tv, no sound.
when he was gone we walked over to see what the place might look like inside. i can't say we were surprised. let me tell you, ramshackle would be too rich to describe a decrepit interior. the bedroom upstairs had a dank mattress flopped sideways off a bare box spring. in the bath the faucet dripped onto a blue stain in the tub, the sink rusty, a bleary clear lightbulb still gleaming. the mirror of the cabinet half blind, its door left ajar. on a glass shelf a puckered tube of crest and two scuzzy tubs of old drug remedies with blistering labels. out in the hallway a broom leaned against the wall where the window missed a triangular crack, shards on the floor. why bother look further, the place was a gross mess, ground mud leading upstairs, floorboards moaning, some wanting altogether. d-con trays in corners, long tailed shadows hustling off like dark ghosts. the cottage had the smell of decayed time, of a place way too late late in wait for a remodel.
yet he had lived there with this woman. she had shown suddenly, but no one was certain from where. someone thought her canadian. while he watched daytime tv, she'd lie fair in the meadow up the hill, sunning herself. i saw her one late afternoon sprawled on a mat in the tall shadowy grass. there she was, bareback, chin propped on elbows, reading. she glanced over indifferently as i passed by to pick plums from a tree further up the yard. and was gone when i ambled back.
of all things i couldn't imagine a woman would live in a place like that, not for a minute, no way in the dark, overnight. yet as fall went she had prevailed, even thrived. they occasionally drove to town in an old cream colored saab and she waved as our cars passed on the narrow road. he never so much as raised a hand in salute. when they moved, the saab was loaded up and over the top, boxes and bags and duffels inside, with nearly no room for a driver. on the rickety roof rack balanced a rocking chair and a small cabinet tied down with bungee cords. she carried weak bags of late trash to our bin. i sat up by my window, writing, looking out daydreaming, concocting this story, when i saw her coming back up the path. she turned swiftly into the driveway, walking the way a cat might, vigilantly. she must have felt watched. her head stayed low until she just passed from my view. then she turned, suddenly, glancing up, but averted her eyes just as quick, knowing she'd been seen.
next we heard the landlady wanted to put money into a renovation. on the cheap of course and amateurish, a hack electrician, named john, looping grey conduit stapled coarsely to old beams overhead. this guy was an all round handyman. he cleaned rat shit from the upstairs, replaced cracked windows and nailed floor boards flush. he apparently did most all of the work himself to make the place livable again. he fixed the old wood stove to code, and installed a chimney cap, plugged and plastered various holes to keep wildlife at bay. he hauled a carpet to cover coarse floorboards in the bedroom upstairs, painted the ceiling a sallow white, the front door dark green. he straightened the stairs and leveled the floor in the hall. he said they would install a new electric stove. new cabinets, a stainless new sink for the kitchen, granite to top the counters. one morning the roofers came and newly shingled the roof, done by late afternoon. the main room downstairs was dark. it opened to a pretty pergola leading outside. john tore down yards of ivy and vines covering that old gazebo to allow some new light ambling into the downstairs.
just outside that arbor rose a very tall pine tree. on a sunny day you could just see its top branches. four grown men, arms extended, nearly grasped its girth. it was majestic, splendid even, i saw an eagle descend to perch at its height, had flown from the river and scared a parcel of crows into cawing, squawking and dive bombing, the bird could care less. this was his noble tree, lofty no doubt. though it seemed to plumb a wee to the west, its pitch was no tilt at all. having it razed for this minute cant would be murder. yet during many months of arguing, the tree had become simply too old. too tall. too worrisome. and it was leaning badly. if in a storm its trunk surely would reach the roof of the cottage. the dispute and the pestering, and whose responsibility it really was should it topple and fall. it all came to an end, when lavinia, the land owner, caved in and abandoned her notion of saving the tree. all she wanted to do was drive out to the stable, sit on her horse, go riding and be left in peace. still she wasn’t convinced. but she was tired, and like the tree, very old and oh so weary of such nonsense dispute. her son fixed flats on a good day, he said he could see plainly the tree was leaning and in a dangerous way. should it topple, it would surely crush the roof and destroy the house which likely was his came an inheritance. the middle daughter, a medical accountant, lived in a gated community with flowering shrubs out in the suburbs and hated all trees. they were a nuisance and a worry everywhere. they didn’t ever hardly even flower and even when they did, their blossom made a giant mess on the sidewalk. she was worried, now that her boy child was to live in the newly restored cottage. the tree simply had to come down. still for a while lavinia held on. she pointed out that the pine was already tall when she was a child and had withstood many a ferocious storm since, almost never losing so much as a branch. besides, it was part of the old growth forest. and for this alone at least two hundred years old and no doubt illegal to cut down, in this county at least. but the middle daughter kept nagging and became truly more and more riled now that the tree might pitch and hurtle some virulent night. and most likely kill her boy in his sleep, certainly destroy the newly refurbished cabin. and so lavinia had become tired of the endless bickering and gave in to their reasons. didn’t they have every right to worry, especially since the roofers had finished the shingling for which she paid more than plenty, and wasn’t planning to pay more any time soon.
one morning i woke to the whirr and buzz of a chainsaw. craning my neck, i saw the tiny silhouette of a man way up the top with an enormous saw cutting into the crown of the tree. like at the barber’s, when she trims your fringe, down sailed small branchlets, boughs off the tip at first, followed by limbs from the crown and as he worked his powerful saw, larger and larger wings sailed to the ground. by noon what was once a royal fir had become a mere stump. alas, still raised some fifty feet tall a capricious finger accusing the sky, hardly resembling a once patrician timber. but turned into timber it was, in a mere matter of hours. years later it might become firewood, if well stacked. the lumber men had sliced the tree into rolls. and there they sat, all of them, some fallen over, some leaning against each other, five feet at the base, a foot and a half wide each. slabs now, about forty in all, defeated by weeds in no time. the half ragged stump five and a half feet wide as it now lumbers two feet above ground. i counted the rings at the cut, an indication of age and of those various oregon weather years, some wider than others, but by my count a rough one hundred and ninety. so i sat and i thought. if at least they would have managed to turn timber to lumber. like stacks of board slab orderly curing, giving a possible future use of the wood as well as retaining the spirit of what had been just yesterday a royal old giant. but what can you say, or for that matter do? we are renters here, as they call us, and merely that. not that we really care. by now it’s been years since we’ve lived here. my own garden is mine only on account of those monthly checks. my collection of plants is grown in containers, some tiny, some large. my little trees, as i call them, are by now quite a large collection of japanese maples, various conifers, a true yakusugi (though still only a tiny kosugi), as well as some cultivars of the weeping katsura tree. if ever we’d have to leave i could pack them all up and move on. i’ve done it before.
but as i sat in my garden i thought of one particular tree in my collection. this, a young giant sequoia now only three feet tall, would grow perfectly well in oregon’s climate. hence live some five hundred years, certainly outlasting me. and all of them. if i gave it a good space on their property, it could easily top some two hundred feet in this present universe. it might even grow in the spirit of the old giant. time alone would be the factor. most of the trees still standing are wistful old chestnuts, oaks and maples. the fat purple beach out back is certainly well past its centennial. like most of the others it was never much cared for, allowed to grow any which way. hence the tree has begun to branch widow makers. all of these woods will hold their own for a while, though unlikely too much into the yonder. while the present generation of venerable owners ride the big steeplechase, their offspring likely has betters to do than to carry on with these grounds or the old house. they’d pursue cash. it might then become true that all of this beautiful land would be razed for newly developed mansions serving some future generation. in my dream though, it just might be declared off limits via a trust, a conservation of space to outlast the ever increasing demand for novel advance. my giant sequoia would then be the sovereign monarch holding sway over chestnuts, maples and oaks. and possibly bearing a small clearing for my now still tiny weeping katsura.
C:michael geiger 2015
206 sw carey lane, portland, oregon 97219
thank you for reading (and possibly publishing) this!