The Walnut Tree
“I’m sorry. I said what I said because of what you said.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have said what you said.”
“I apologized. I said I was wrong to say that. Your apology…”
“I apologized for what I said. Take it or leave it.”
“The apologies are not the same.”
“They aren’t because of what you said,” Leah countered.
Elliot stuck the key in the front door lock and asked, “Can we put this behind us?”
“If you do.”
Elliot unlocked the door and let Leah and the kids into the house that was once the home of a chicken farmer in 1898. The house had been built in West Linden Oaks, a town founded along the railroad expansion west of Chicago. Over the years the patchwork two-story house had gained additions that sellers would call “charming” and that contractors would call “nightmarish”. The last owners had neglected the backyard. A hodge-podge of prairie grass, crabgrass and bare soil framed by overgrown shrubs was the view from the kitchen sink window. The back third of the yard was dark as it was overshadowed by a 50-foot-tall walnut tree.
Surveying the yard the day after Elliot and Leah took possession of the house, Elliot imagined a garden and wondered about the walnut tree. The soil beneath its canopy was ink black and nothing was growing.
“Hi Neighbor.” The almost whispered greeting had come from the other side of the garage. Elliot looked around the corner of the garage. There at the fence he saw an old man with grey hair and a frame that was tilted forward.
“That tree has been here as long as I have. Hi neighbor, I’m Bud.”
“Hi, I’m Elliot.”
“I was born and raised and married and now retired in that house, “Bud pointed over his shoulder to his two-story white house. “I saw lightning hit your tree in ’63. Lightening must like those deep-rooted types.
“I wouldn’t plant cabbage, peppers, tomatoes or blueberries over there,” he said pointing to the shaded area under the walnut tree. “I’d move the garden to the middle of the yard past the tree’s root system. That tree’s fruit falls to the ground every year and the hulls poison the soil with juglone which is toxic to certain plants. Juglone protects the tree to assure its survival. So, you’ll want to plant away from the dripline which is from the trunk to the end of the branches. The soil will be toxic under the dripline. And if you want the nutmeat from the walnut for a walnut pie, then you had better wear gloves and protection to get it out its husk. The stain doesn’t come off. Time is the only thing that will wear the black pigment off of your hands. My stains are fading.” Bud showed Elliot his hands blotted hands. “My wife Gracie made some delicious walnut pies from those nutmeats.”
Looking over at Bud’s well-kept yard Elliot asked, “How do you know so much about all this?”
“I worked for the Department of Streets and Sanitation here in the village for forty-one years. My eyes began giving me a problem and my back, too. And then Gracie became ill. I planted a lot of trees over the years.”
When the first Sunday in their new home came around Elliot gave his son Ronny a shower and then got him dressed. He then helped his daughter Ribbon find some clean clothes at the bottom of her closet. “It’s almost time for church. You two finish up. I have to get dressed.” Elliot went to the master bedroom and found Leah dressing.
“I want to go to my grandmother’s next weekend,” Leah said.
“I…I have to play in the worship band next Sunday.”
“I knew you’d weasel out of it. I’ll take the kids. Grandma hasn’t seen them in months. She’s not happy that our kids aren’t raised Catholic.”
“My personal evangelism teacher Mr. Winslett back at the Midwest Institute of the Bible told me that Catholicism is a cult. They worship Mary he said. I believed it at the time. I was proud of being such a no-nonsense Protestant like Mr. W. But later, I thought it was better to have more Mary than less Mary in the church.”
“You haven’t heard anything yet. A priest came to my parent’s house one time to play cards. He left the game after gulping down his scotch to perform nine-o’clock Mass.”
“Do you think Mary would approve?”
“Well, she could count on him to show up.”
“Grandma Dot says that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
“That may explain the hard-drinking priests. Your grandmother must have had a hard life. “
“Her husband had an affair with her sister after thirty-six years of marriage. Grandma would not forgive her sister. And then later my grandfather died from lung cancer.”
“Ouch. Hey. Look at the time. I have to set up the chairs before everyone gets there.”
“I have to get there early, too. I have to get things ready in the sacristy. What about the kids? They have to get ready, too.”
“I got them ready. They are downstairs chasing the dog around the dining room table.”
“Did you walk the dog?”
“Did you feed the fish? Did you take the meat out of the freezer?”
“Did you get them to brush their teeth?
Five minutes later Leah and the kids were in the car. Leah blew the horn. Elliot was scrambling to find his blue tie. It had been moved. The car’s horn blew again. “We’re gonna be late,” Leah yelled from the front seat. “Leave it to your father to make us late.”
Dorothy Blacklock – Dot – lived in a house with bats on Hickory Boulevard. in Des Moines, Iowa. The rodents inhabited an upstairs bedroom behind a closed door. When Dot could no longer walk up the stairs she implored her family to remove the bats. The family felt she had enough money and time to deal with the matter. “Just call an exterminator,” they told her. “They’ll just take advantage of me and charge too much” Dot told them.
The first time Elliot met Dot he could see that was severely crippled with arthritis. Her spine had curled and become rigid over time. Her hands were gnarled, boney and stiff. The thumb and index finger of each hand acted like pincers. Elliot was struck by Dot’s yellow tinged leather-like face beneath a shock of white hair. A smoker for fifty years, deep furrowed lines, like gorges, flared from Dot’s tight pursed lips and from the corner of her watery eyes. She put away the oxygen tank when Elliot and Leah and the kids came over.
Day in and day out Dot occupied the coach in front of the TV set in the living room. She would eat breakfast – peanut butter on toast – watching the local news. She griped to her daughter on the phone when her neighbor down the street brought her the local paper after ten o’clock. She griped to her granddaughter on the phone about the erratic mail delivery times and “those Republicans.” After the evening news she slept on the couch.
On Saturdays Dot went to Mass with her neighbor Joyce. Joyce was an avid reader of Readers’ Digest. And that is where she found a quote from Hubert Humphrey that she shared with Dot one day on the way to Mass.
“It is not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.”
Dot snarled, “I can do nothing with a house full of bats.”
Later that Sunday afternoon there was a knock on the front door.
“Hi neighbor. Can you put these eye drops in for me? Gracie is not able to do it.” Bud stood at the door in bib overalls.”
“Sure. Sit on the bench.”
Bud ambled over to the porch bench and plopped down. Elliot walked over and stood in front of Bud. He carefully placed his hand on Bud’s forehead. As he did Bud leaned his head back. Elliot squeezed the dropper and a drop of glycerin fell onto Bud’s dilated pupil. Bud blinked several times. Elliot applied the drops to Bud’s left eye. Bud blinked and wiped the corners of his eyes. Bud looked around and said, “Thanks, neighbor. I need to do this once a week.”
“I’ll be here. Just knock.”
Leah’s mother and Dot’s daughter Scarlett Rand nee Scarlett Blacklock had married a Jesuit seminarian. This happened after Scarlett and Francis Rand had been seen together holding hands in their small town. Scarlett quickly divorced Leah’s father, considering him too plebeian for her purposes. Child support and the Church’s annulment of her marriage to Cliff would serve her higher calling.
Leah’s father never forgave Scarlett and Scarlett never seemed to give a damn about what anyone thought of her decision to defrock a seminarian and divorce her husband. When asked about the matter, Scarlett told seventeen-year-old Leah that she wasn’t committing adultery. “We’re just good friends. Francis is a spiritual man and your father doesn’t affirm me like Francis does.
Over the years the house would need many repairs. A new sewer drain pipe had to be laid out to the street. Tree roots had so choked the original line that sewage would backup and flood the basement with putrid black septic goo. A backhoe had to retrench and lay a new pipe. The marriage, too, needed a lot of work. At one point Leah demanded marriage counseling.
Psychologist Kasparov was a rotund man in his late fifties with large bags under his bloodshot eyes. He sat in a round chair in the middle of the room facing Elliot and Leah who sat on a love seat. “So, how can I help you two?’
“He doesn’t love me,” Leah shifted her legs and started the conversation.
“There is something going on that I don’t understand.”
“I can’t depend on him. I send him to the store to pick up eggs and milk and he comes back with eggs and cheese. And the other day he does the laundry without telling me. Now the kid’s clothes are gray. He shrunk them, too. I don’t feel listened to or valued when he screws up like this.”
“What do you want from Elliot?
“I want to depend on him. I should feel cherished and I don’t.”
“I see. Elliot, what do you want?”
“I want the confusion to end.”
Over the next several months when Elliot and Leah saw Kasparov Elliot had hoped that Leah would bring up her past. In the third year of their marriage Elliot learned from a drinking Leah that boyfriends and abortions were in her past and so were drugs and working for an escort service to pay for the drugs. Leah had never said a word about these things before their marriage. Leah never said a word about these things during the sessions with Kasparov. Elliot left those things for her to say. It was her responsibility. And, he didn’t want to divulge those things and make it look like he was blaming her for whatever the problem was.
“Do you love Leah, Elliot?
“I bring her chocolates and coffee to her bed in the morning before I go to work.”
“That is not enough. I don’t feel loved,” Leah interjected.
“I brought you to my church. You said you came to believe in Jesus one Sunday.”
“It was my decision. You had nothing to do with it.”
In a later session Elliot found out that Leah had called and talked at length to Kasparov. She had asked that he have a one on one session with Elliot to get the root of the problem.
Elliot met with Kasparov. Slumping down in the chair Elliot said that he was puzzled. “Leah isn’t happy and she is saying that I am the reason. I am just trying to maintain life as I know it for her and the kids. I don’t handle confusion well.” Kasparov suggested that Elliot see the clinic’s psychiatrist for an anti-depressant. Elliot made the appointment that day.
A week later Dr. Nutter greeted Elliot in the clinic’s waiting room. “C’mon in.” After twenty minutes of background talk Dr. Nutter wrote Elliot a script for Zollift. “Come back in a month let’s talk again.”
A month later and Elliot was sitting before Dr. Nutter with a look of resignation. “Leah is angry all the time. I don’t know why. Now she is telling our church friends that I am the problem in the marriage. I am at a loss. I don’t have the emotional resources to care anymore. Besides I am the only one working and paying for the counseling sessions. I have to go to work and think about work or else.”
Several months later Elliot sat down at his desk and tried to focus. The marriage counseling had ended when Leah demanded a separation. Elliot then found a two-bedroom apartment. Having to pay rent and the mortgage on the house was a weight on Elliot that crushed him. At his desk tears filled his eyes. Elliot went out to his car. He made a decision.
Elliot drove to the apartment and then called his boss. “I need some time off. I am dealing with some personal things.” His boss said “OK, how much time?” “A week, maybe two. I don’t know. I’ll call.” Elliot hung up the phone, his face wet with tears.
Six weeks ago Elliot had stopped taking the Zollift. It had made him feel lethargic and indifferent. Those feelings scared him. He wanted to care about his marriage and what was happening to his family. But he also knew that if he cared like he wanted to then he couldn’t do his work and if he didn’t do his work he couldn’t afford to take care of his family and pay for the mounting debt. He called Dr. Nutter’s emergency number.
“I want to go somewhere quiet. I am so depressed I can’t do anything. I feel paralyzed. I sit at my desk everyday crying. I want to care but I don’t want to care. I want to go somewhere where I’m not.”
“Do you think you will hurt yourself?”
“I don’t know. I have never been depressed before. It is getting worse every minute.”
“Go to Mercy Hospital emergency room. I will tell them you are coming. Is someone there who can drive you? “
“I am separated. I can drive.”
“When you get to the hospital you will be on suicide watch. I’ll sign the papers so you can be admitted to Three Oaks Mental Health Facility. The hospital will transport over you to Three Oaks.”
At Three Oaks Elliot received a physical. Then Dr. Val Camani interviewed Elliot. Elliot mentioned that he had stopped taking Zollift. “I didn’t like what it did to me. Now I’ve crashed.” Dr. Camani gave Elliot two Wellbuthen tablets and then sent Elliot off to bed.
The beds were like foamed slabs of concrete and Elliot couldn’t sleep. The patient in the next bed, Ivan Denisovich, snored and wheezed. A buzzing fluorescent light in the hallway emitted cold light into the door less room. Elliot talked to the night nurse and asked for a sleeping pill. Soon Elliot found his quiet place.
The patients in the mental health ward on the fifth floor were locked in. No one had a cell phone. On Tuesday night patients were allowed to use the hallway phone from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm. After waiting his turn Elliot called home. He wanted to make sure he kids were Ok and not worried about him.
“Where the hell are you?” Leah pounced.
“I’m at Three Oaks clinic. I needed to get away.”
“How are you going to pay for my cell phone bill in there? It is due Thursday.”
“I don’t know. Let me talk to Ribbon.”
“Hi kiddo. I am OK. I just needed to get away to a quiet place. How are you doing?”
“Good is you brother there? I don’t have much time. I love you.
“Hi buddy. I am OK. I just needed to get away to a quiet place. How are you doing?”
“Great. I’ll see you and Ribbon soon. Let me talk to mom. I love you.”
“I am trying to get out of here as soon as I can. They gave me a different anti-depressant. The Zollift made me not care about anything. I hated it. I stopped taking it and I think that caused me to crash. I’m better now but I can’t leave until they say so.”
“You have some bills to pay. Why can’t I depend on you? I am going out with some friends on Friday night. You better get out and take the kids this weekend or I will be really pissed.”
“My time is up. I’ll see when I can get out of here. I’ll call Thursday night.”
Three Oaks released Elliot on Good Friday morning. He drove over to the house. Ronny and Ribbon were anxiously waiting for him. That night Elliot read Swiss Family Robinson to them before bed.
One day a year later Leah told Elliot, “I’ll give you one more chance.” So Elliot moved back into the house, not sure if anything had changed other than the amount of debt he owned.
On Elliot’s fiftieth birthday, Leah decided to give him sex. As they got themselves undressed Elliot asked, “Could you just wear that perfume I like.” Leah jumped out of bed, put on her robe and stormed out of the room. “What was that about?” Elliot wondered, naked on the bed. From experience he knew that he would never get an answer, at least not the answer related to what just happened.
A few minutes later Ronny and Ribbon called for Elliot to come down for his birthday cake. He blew out the “50”candle while Ronny and Ribbon sang “Happy Birthday”. Leah just stood there holding a glass of wine in front of a stoic grimace. Under her arched eyebrows the pupil of each eye had constricted down to form a black bee bee. Elliot decided to clean up and put the kids to bed.
After Ronny and Ribbon were in bed and Leah had downed her fourth glass of wine, Elliot and Leah went to the garage to play darts. Going into the garage they noticed the wind. On the driveway fallen leaves were now churning in whirlwinds. There was a cold electric charge in the air. Elliot looked out around the garage door. “Look’s like we’re gonna have a doozy tonight. We better get started.”
Off to the west behind the Walnut tree lightening etched the night sky. Moments later a bombastic thunder boom shook the air. “Mom! Dad!” Ribbon called out from her upstairs bedroom. Leah ran to comfort her.
Leah sat down on the edge of Ribbon’s bed and looked out the window. It was then that she heard a loud “POP!” and saw what looked like sparks of a Roman candle in the corner of the backyard. The pole transformer had been hit by a lightning strike. Immediately the lights went out in the house and garage. Then she heard a long cracking sound and then a massive crunch. Lightening flashed again and Leah could see that a stout limb of the walnut tree had fallen through the roof of the garage. Leah got up and raced downstairs. She stopped in the kitchen to grab a flash light.
“Elliot? Elliot! Are you OK?” There was no answer. Shining the light inside Leah entered the garage. “Elliot? Elliot!” No answer. A motionless foot appeared under a branch. From the bottom of the shoe Leah lifted the light along to where Elliot’s head would be. Moving a branch and then a pile of walnut husks Leah saw Elliot’s face under a laurel of leaves. She gasped. On his temple was a large bleeding gash. Beneath, his eyes were closed and there was a look of silken repose on his face – almost like the weight of the world had been lifted off of him. Leah drew back in disgust, her hands blackened by the broken walnut husks. “How could you do this to me, Elliot, leaving me and the kids like this? I could never count on you.”
©Ann Johnson, Kingdom Venturers, 2016, All Rights Reserved