Fall/Winter 2020Fiction

Taking Root – Joey Hedger

The Virginia rowhouse where Vera Clarke arrives early evening is old. Pretty, but old. Older than her own apartment building in Florida, which now likely still sits beneath a shallow layer of flooded ocean water. Mold growing up the walls. Soggy carpet. Trash cast about the parking lot. She left it behind—temporarily—along with the feelings she got when learning, not two days earlier, that her own neighbor—the old woman who lives across the way—died on her couch. Of course she had to leave after that, she figured. To get away somehow. For a bit.

The main street in this Virginia city extends many blocks into both directions from this rowhouse, ultimately letting off onto the Potomac River waterfront to her east and a crowded interstate to her west. A glow of second-hand light crosses the sky, buckles itself overhead like a tapestry. Upon exiting the Lyft, as the driver unloads her suitcase from the trunk of his Mini Cooper and sets it down on the sidewalk, he shrugs at the blue-painted building, not fifteen feet wide, pressed like a panini between a maroon house on its left and a green one on the right.

“If that’ll be all,” says the man. But he does not finish his thought and drops the trunk shut, driving off a moment later.

Still on the sidewalk, Vera palms her suitcase and goes to the door, where a lockbox holds the old key.

A layer of mold has grown along the edges of the doorway, and the chipped blue paint on the exterior is in need of a power wash. Nevertheless, she proceeds to fiddle open the rusted lock and snap the doughy seal along the door’s creases.

Inside, the house is cold. A fall breeze seems to creep through its old hallways, across the egg-shell walls, down the wooden stairs—a ghostly presence. But when the lights click on, Vera’s hand pressing an entire row of switches at once, the ghost does not disappear. In the entry, a pile of letters and newspapers forms a welcome mat below the door’s mid-level mail slot; she kicks it aside, then follows the cool air up the stairs and into the only bedroom.

At first she only notices the layer of acorns covering the hardwood floor. Dragging, rattling loudly, as she steps in and wades through the debris. The twin bed in the corner drifts boat-like over this sea, drifts toward the single window, toward the corner of the room, the wall—then she sees it. The trunk of a large chestnut oak visibly protruding like a slanted beam from halfway up the pale wall and puncturing through the ceiling. Somehow, it had grown into this formation, Atlas’s arm shouldering the roof of the house upward.

“Just my luck,” she says to herself as she feels the cool air seeping in between the scaly bark and its copious holes. “Of course nobody’s been here in years.”

Outside, Vera looks up from the brick sidewalk. How could nobody notice it, the tree pushing into the rowhouse? She taps the shoulder of a neighbor, who is at the moment waiting for his sweatered dachshund to finish urinating on the base of that same oak tree.

“You see that, don’t you?”

“What’s that,” he asks, “the tree?”

“How it pushed through the side of the house, I mean. See? It’s sticking out the top like a chimney.”

The neighbor squints his eyes, then shrugs. “I guess it does look like that, huh?”

“I’m renting this house.”

“Oh,” he replies. “Better call someone then.”

Exasperated, Vera goes back inside and finds the tiny kitchen on the first floor. Its windows overlook a patio in the backyard, which leads into the next door’s patio and then the next door’s patio until the rowhouse rears finally stop at the start of the nearest intersection. From her window, she notices the slight variation in each, the wilting flowers and tomato plants strung up the stained-wooden posts. The rocking chairs. The outdoor grills. The glass table.

She goes through a few of the drawers and cabinets, not exactly sure what to search for that could aid her experience. Until she comes upon an old laminated sheet of paper, titled “House Rules,” and taped to the refrigerator door. Vera reads off the list.

  1. Welcome, guest(s)! Please make yourself at home. Pots and pans above the sink.
  2. No pets. Birds and fish included.
  3. No loud noise after 8 pm.
  4. Leave everything as you found it.
  5. If you have issues, please contact us via the rental app.

Removing her phone, Vera tries to pull up the app. Yet her data is low, and there is no wifi in the house, so she replaces it in her pocket, finds a glass of water, and takes a long drink. The kitchen clock ticks audibly. Absentmindedly, she pulls at a strand of hair above her right ear and lets it drift off to the floor. She often pulls at her hair, when her thoughts and sensations do not seem syncopated. Above the window hang a string of light-up chili peppers. Plugging them in, Vera watches their red glow for a moment before leaving the house.

 

At the coffee shop on the nearest corner—a miniature diner-looking nook, with coffee that tastes like burnt peppercorn—Vera presses send on the third email to her rental house owners. As their short messages blurb onto her laptop screen in five- to ten-minute intervals, Vera wishes she could just call them. She asked for their number first, to which the faceless username “Blue House” replied, Could you please express your concern here, via the app? Of course, Vera did not have the app and had to login through her internet browser. So she typed back a short message explaining the situation with the tree. In the front or around back, came the next reply.

Distressed, Vera runs her fingers through her hair, not noticing the spilled coffee her hand has inadvertently brought with it. Going for the nearest box of napkins, she pauses as another message blips onto her screen: What kind of tree?

Finally, Vera glances up to the barista, a mid-aged woman with curly black hair, currently washing glasses on the other end of the countertop.

“Excuse me,” says Vera. “Do you know much about trees?”

“Ah, no. Some. But not much,” replies the barista. “Did you know that trees can sing?”

“They can?”

“They have unique songs. Made by air bubbles rising in their trunk or roots. You can listen to them somewhere. It was a science exhibit I think. At a museum. It had an audio track of trees singing. Kind of like whales, I think. They can also communicate with each other. Warn each other of different threats like bugs or disease through fungi systems.”

“Well that’s not particularly helpful for me.”
“Why’s that?”

“Because I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of one.”

“It all goes away anyway, doesn’t it. You know some people put their ashes in trees. They put it in the soil so it becomes a part of the plant. That’s what my neighbor did, at least. The one who just died last week, actually. Sorry. Not to be negative. I have to miss her funeral for this job.”

“No kidding.”

“What?”

“My neighbor just died too.”

The barista’s face sags into a mournful expression.

“Chestnut oaks are big around here,” she says finally.

 

Username Blue House finally establish that they will send some removal people at some point between tomorrow and early next week. They do not apologize for the inconvenience. They do not respond when Vera notes that she looks forward to waking up with a squirrel in her bed.

At the blue house, she avoids the upstairs bedroom for as long as possible. When the lights come on, and the heater kicks into gear, she admittedly finds it altogether somewhat cozy. Beside the couch, in a little living room near the entryway, a tall bookshelf carries a slew of novels and mysteries and colorful photography magazines that she skims through to see travel destinations around the world.

When she finally goes to bed, Vera wraps the edges of the tree hole in towels to keep in the house’s fleeting warmth. Then suddenly considers whether this would dampen the tree’s song. She does not want the song silenced. To pad it up too much with blankets and towels. Unless they sing through their roots, then it would be OK. She wishes she had looked it up at the coffee shop, while she still had internet connection.

Sleep drifts upon her like a steadily rising tide, which she does not notice or remember happening. Especially because she dreams of the tree trunk sticking through her bedroom. All sorts of things happen in this dream, then unhappen: The tree falls over, crushing the house. Then it is back again. The tree disintegrates into some poisonous dust that she cannot help but breathe in. Then back. The tree gets overtaken by a colony of ants and other bugs, creeping through the nighttime darkness and beginning to encompass the room. When she starts awake, she wonders if the tree is still there. Through the orange glow of a street light coming in through the window, she can make it out, goes up to its bark and touches it. No bugs. No poisonous dust. Relieved, she goes back to sleep.

 

When ocean water spilled over the base of her Florida apartment building, having already filtered through the street, over the sea wall, into the soil beneath the palm trees, and muddying the nearby city park, Vera first went to the local brewery, where she received three free drinks for announcing her predicament to the crowd. One older woman, sitting alone, put the first beer on her tab and said, “They keep building and building don’t they. Pretty soon, there will be no more land. Only floating buildings and ocean. That’s what Florida’s in for.”

Another drink came from the bartender who spoke loudly. “No home. No place to stay? I’ve been there. Was homeless for a week in high school. Well, I ran off and slept on the beach at least. Don’t know if you can call that homeless since I was back in my bedroom, warm and comfortable a few days later. I just needed to get away, you know?”

The final drink came from a man wearing a feathered hat. Made of a felt-like material, a large peacock feather shooting skyward from the side of its round bucket. He was older, had fading eyes, and wore a bowtie over a Cuban short-sleeve shirt.

He said, “It’s interesting to hear about the flooding. It’s not just your home that’s getting flooded. You just happen to be by the ocean. You thinking about what you’ll do now?”

“Now?”

“What I mean is you need something to replace the apartment. A job offer, or traveling. I’d like to ask you a favor.”

He introduced himself as Duke Menard, before continuing. “I have an article I’m supposed to write about flooding. Ironically enough. Rising water. How it affects communities. Thing is, I’m not much of a traveler anymore. Which means I need somebody who can go up to the Virginia for a few days. They’ve got a big problem with flooding and local businesses that I’m supposed to cover. Could you do it? The job is easy. You’d only need to ask some locals a few questions.”

“You’re a journalist?”

“I freelance, got hired to write this big piece. I just can’t seem to get myself on an airplane these days. I can pay you straight up, enough for housing, travel. Then a few bucks more for your time. I’m afraid it wouldn’t be much, but if you’re not busy. Nowhere to go. It could be good.”

“Why me, then?”

“Because,” said Duke Menard, “You probably have a good perspective on flooding. Honestly, they bought me a ticket and rented a place. The quotes don’t matter all that much. I just need someone to fill a seat, check in to the house, those sorts of things. Make it look like the work’s getting done.”

Vera did not understand why she felt OK taking the job. Possibly due to the feeling she always gets whenever she stays at her childhood home, where her mother still keeps relatively unchanged. She had to go there, when her apartment flooded. There was nowhere else. But on this night, she scanned the stranger’s business card, figured a way to ask off from her current job, and shook his shaky hand. Days later, Vera broke into her flooded apartment building, climbed three sets of pitch-black stairs, and packed the bare minimum of what she would need into a large suitcase. From there, she took a bus to the airport and flew off at eight the next morning.

On her second day in the house, Vera goes through the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen. She forgot to turn off the chili pepper lights the night before, and one of the bulbs now hangs dead. Limp. Blank. She twists it a couple of times to see if it would relight for her, then unplugs the cord and goes back to a cabinet filled with postcards from national parks. In front of a southwest image sits a piece of petrified wood, no bigger than a thimble. Next to it a flap of sheep’s wool. Next to that a taxidermy rabbit’s foot. Vera picks up the petrified wood to admire it.

The nearest Trader Joes is crowded this time of the day. To Vera, its flowery linoleum scent is identical to the Trader Joes she goes to in Florida. She goes through the store, not to buy anything, but to just peruse and sample the coffee at the rear. A few blocks over, she visits the waterfront, where a line of old shops have barricaded their doorways and the cracks along their walls with sandbags. She snaps a photo on her cellphone, tries to send it to the number Duke Menard had given her but the message fails.

“It has not flooded since last week,” says a bookstore manager when asked, “But it’s best that we leave the sandbags on, in case it rains again.”

A customer, noticing Vera taking notes on a small pad, leans in to inform her that the Potomac is a unique river because it is directly affected by tides. Which is partly why flooding is such a problem. When the tide rises, so does the river. She should see it; all of this underwater. Vera thanks the two individuals and decides to return to the waterfront at a different time, as she has little to do for the rest of the week other than these interviews.

On the way home, she buys crepe paper from the stationary shop nearby and spends the rest of the afternoon hunched over a desk, shaping and gluing the pieces together. Streams. Stars. Geometric patterns. By nightfall, the tree trunk jutting into her bedroom is no longer bare, but decorated by streams of colors—sunshine gold, fall reds, bright purple—which soon connect to her walls and ceiling until the whole room is lit up by the crepe theatrics. Earlier in the day, she had received word—via the same app—that the tree removal service would arrive some time the next morning. Gazing at the decorated chestnut oak, she wonders if it is too late to reverse that decision, or if she could convince anyone to let this tree stay.

 

The next morning the sky grows spotty with clouds. Which become darker, until a light rainfall begins over the old colonial rowhouses and the brick market square and the glowing streetlamps, their yellow haze dancing on the glistening street. Vera gets caught in this by the waterfront and rushes into the shade of a shopping center’s awning. To dry off, she sidles into shoe store, where she is immediately greeted by the dense leather odor of expensive oxfords and the voice of a clerk from across an aisle of casual ware announce, “Try to step over the sandbags, won’t you? They’re a bit hard to notice.”

The glass door slowly pushes out the drumming of rain as it closes behind her. Vera steps over a circle of sandbags guarding the entryway and looks around a moment at the myriad shoes covering the walls and aisles. A wooden stairway leads up to a “employee’s only” section, and a cash register sits on a desk beside the front door.

The clerk looks over at her. He is dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, and an opened shoebox is in his hands, one of its contents half-fitting his bare foot. Noticing Vera examining his actions, he blushes.

“We usually open in thirty minutes. But I thought I’d let people in early, depending on how bad the rain gets.”

A rumble like thunder shakes the room slightly, setting Vera on edge. It reminds her of her dream where the chestnut oak crashed into the rowhouse. Of the whale-like song that trees can apparently produce. The clerk notices her agitation.

“It’s just the airplanes. Not thunder. Yet, at least. They land a mile that way, so we get that sound every five minutes or so. Are you shopping for shoes today?”

“Do you believe it’s ever too late to change your mind?” asks Vera suddenly

“I guess,” says the clerk as he staggers forward, his left bare foot still partially tucked into a fashionable brown wing-tip. “Are we talking about buying shoes? Return policies?”

“More like guilt.”

Overhead, the airplanes rumble, again.

“Do you often stand there like that?” asks the clerk.

“Like what?”

“Like you’re getting ready to run. It’s in the posture.”

Yet just as the clerk begins his discourse on arch support in footwear, Vera is already out of the door, rushing down the avenue, under and through each of the fabric awnings. The rain lightens up to a soft mist, though the sidewalk is already sunken beneath a thin layer of the river. A newspaper box, a stop sign, parking meters—these items form splits in the current as they rise from the layer of floodwater. Up the street, however, the flooding diminishes and Vera, as she reaches it, notices a chipper truck parked along the sidewalk in the distance beside the blue rowhouse. She has decided that she cannot let them remove the chestnut oak, which has probably been the only resident of that house to stay longer than a week. The tree that has rooted itself into one place, ready to stay forever, singing, speaking. Growing. How could she or anybody else remove such a creature?

“Is it done?” Vera asks a man looking miserable in a raincoat.

He glances up at her, his eyebrows sopping. “What done?”

“The tree, in the house.”

She cannot help but notice the heavy tarp drawn over the second floor, into which the chestnut oak’s solid trunk digs. A few other people stand around in raincoats looking miserable as well.

“Done,” the man repeats.

Vera goes inside, having not noticed the workers all shouting in unison that she must not. She goes upstairs, feeling the cold damp air, and enters the bedroom. Upon opening the door, however, she finds nothing there. No walls, no ceiling, no bed, no acorn-strewn floor. No tree. By the look of it, the top half of the tree had cracked apart, under the influence of a chainsaw, and toppled over the entire roof, taking with it the bedroom and most of the second floor. She gapes, wobbles on the edge of the precipice, before slamming the door shut and closing out the grim morning. Some time later, when she finally goes to leave, the Lyft driver examines the rowhouse covered in tarp, the debris and wood chips scattered across the sidewalk.

“Hope that house has some good insurance,” he says off-handedly, before tossing her suitcase in trunk and driving her off to the airport, just as one or two airplanes drift by overhead, the city rattling beneath them on their way out. Vera wonders when her neighbor’s funeral will take place.


 

Joey Hedger is author of the chapbook, In the Line of a Hurricane, We Wait (Red Bird, 2019). His prose is published/forthcoming in Posit, Ghost City Review, Maudlin House, and EcoTheo Review. A Floridian by birth, Hedger now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he edits for an education-based association. Find him at @joey_hedger.

The author: John Carter

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