“Hey, what’s up! Happy birthday!”
The backyard was heavy with noise and people, and there were red plastic cups everywhere. It was my friend’s 21st birthday party, but she and I weren’t all that close, meaning that I knew almost none of the people coming in and out of the house. I had been sitting by the window most of the night, keeping my hands busy with an old typewriter that I had found in the grass. It was smashed up, but it gave me something to talk about, or at least mess around with. I wanted someone to lean on, but the conversations around me were mostly inside jobs. Heavy metal blared inside the house, muffled a bit by the walls. The kids on the back porch fluttered about each other, sometimes disappearing into the dark grass and reappearing later with smiles on their faces. Eventually this guy shows up, with a unicycle under his arm. He was pretty lanky, and wearing an old army jacket. I went up to him, asked if I could bum a cig, and we got to talking. His face was emaciated and kinda pockmarked, but he was happy to gab. I asked about the unicycle, and he offered to teach me how to ride it. “It’s really easy, I’ll show you.” He had me dangle from the aluminum awning that covered the back porch, while he propped the wheel up beneath me. Step one was just learning how to balance on the thing, but it seemed to me like mastery of step one involved simultaneous mastery of step two – moving forward – also known as “riding a unicycle.” I clung to the sky in a cold sweat. This was definitely not a good idea.
My instructor abruptly abandoned me for some commotion at the back door, and, feeling naked and absurd up there alone, I dropped down to see what was going on. A new wave of people had crashed upon our party, bringing with them fresh life and beer. The birthday girl had come outside, and I fought my way into her company again, relieved to have someone I could actually talk to. She and I fell into a triangle with one of the new arrivals, a tall fellow named Patrick. He seemed uncannily awake, given the hour. We learned that he was an electrician, and that he was leaving tomorrow for Arizona. He was friendly, and spoke of everything in heavy detail. Like how many feet tall the ladders were, or how much the pair of work gloves cost. We mostly listened to him, not the other way around.
The night passed uneventfully for a while. I felt myself drowning in words, felt myself getting sad. Patrick wouldn’t stop talking.
“So, do you wanna go plant a tree?”
My thoughts poked back above the water. “What?”
“I picked out this spot, over in the park by 29th St. There’s a creek there, and the soil along the bank is perfect – kind of a sandy loam, nice and moist. I know where we could get a sapling from. Right now. You wanna come?”
I had no idea what kind of dirt sandy loam was. I still don’t. But late night desperation had wormed its way into my head, and as I looked past him at that dead bunch of party crashers and nowhere kids, there was only one thing to say.
My friend and I walked out with him to his pickup truck. Michael Jackson and Metallica blared from different corners of the house, covering up the fact that we were essentially kidnapping the birthday girl and taking the party with us. She seemed open to the plan, if maybe a little indifferent. I for one was excited. I had been promoted from a no-name in the backyard to first lieutenant of the birthday. I opened the door of the cab for her, and the three of us took off into the night.
Patrick kept on brainstorming as he guided us on to the highway. There was something kind of insane about him, I thought, looking sideways at his dim-bright face. His good cheer, his focus, the way he never shutup:
“…we’ll hit up my friend’s house downtown, if he’s awake. I think he’s got a red dogwood sapling bound up in burlap in his backyard…”
I figured he used to be a stoner, the way he carried on, but I kept my thoughts quiet. The birthday girl took over the listening for a few minutes, and I let myself drift away a little. The campus beneath us flew by, and suddenly I was a kid visiting the city for the first time. There were all these lights in the sky.
I realized then that there was lightning flashing behind us, toward the north, which I brought to Patrick’s attention. He didn’t seem to think it was a problem. We had exited the highway by then and were flying down 12th street. We traced it to a quiet neighborhood just off of downtown where the houses were all two stories tall and set up on old stone hills. He parked the truck in front of one of them, jumped out of the cab, and went up the stairs to the front door. Me and birthday girl stayed in the truck, not knowing what to do.
I could make out Patrick tapping on the screen door, and then again on the front windows. All the lights in the house were off. He then disappeared around the side of the house for a few minutes. This forced birthday girl and me to wake up to each other. She lit two smokes and we rolled the windows down. We hadn’t been talking very long before a soft thump hushed us up.
Patrick reappeared behind the pickup, grinning like a madman and brandishing a shovel. A baby tree with its roots bound up lay flat on the front lawn, and he motioned for us to come outside. I was suddenly a little scared.
“Ricky was asleep. And no sign of the dogwood either. But there was a bald cypress back there, which is just as good. We’ll need to get a few buckets of water.”
The buzz of adrenaline went away, but I was on guard now – something about the way he held that shovel in the moonlight really creeped me out. Patrick had found a spigot on the side of the stairs, and he had us fill up two five-gallon buckets while he scrawled a note on his friend’s door. Minutes later, we were back on the dark streets. Patrick continued his train of thought, this time telling us all about how dogwood trees were different from cypress trees. Birthday girl and I didn’t say a word.
Resentment. Frustration. There’s only so much a guy can talk at you before you start feeling bruised and rotten. It was like two in the morning at that point, and I was starting to feel a little unholy. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. But we were almost there, and I clung helplessly to the idea that something good might happen.
Patrick pulled the truck onto a winding street just off of 29th St. The creek was off to our right, and he jumped the truck over the curb, aiming for a pale clearing in the overgrowth. There was a bar just up the street, and people were shuffling out of the doors in small groups. They were pretty far away though, and we had the clearing to ourselves. Patrick killed the engine.
The rest of what happened that night was just… I don’t know. A giant dreamy blur. The three of us took the tree toward the center of the clearing. Patrick looked up, predicting where the autumnal sun would fly overhead tomorrow. He silently determined the precise coordinates of our tree according to some bizarre midnight geometry, and then he handed birthday girl a shovel. It was her birthday, after all, she should be the one to break ground. Which she did.
The whole plan went without a hitch. No cops interfered. No storm drowned us out. No drunks jumped out of the bushes. The tree stood proud and thin in the misty air. It was as perfect a moment as I am capable of, and this man, this Patrick, he deserved all the credit.
“See how the tree is facing? That’s good. The leaves are a little thicker on this side, and that’ll protect it from winds coming in from the northwest. Most of your storms are gonna come in from that direction.”
I wanted to smash his face in with a bottle. Shut up, shut up, shut up!
Fuck it. Not that that would help anything. It’s just the way that he stood there, breathing in the mist and grinning, like he was listening to music that we couldn’t hear, it really got under my skin. It’s like in the book Heart of Darkness. All that people usually remember is the line “the horror, the horror,” but what I remember was the way that Mr. Kurtz crept up on you, long before Marlow actually found him. You spend the whole novel hearing stories about him, all these whispered rumours of how great and godstruck a man he is. His personality, his charisma. His ability to bring ivory back from the jungle. And now, looking at Patrick (who is now suggesting we head toward the bar, to make friends with the people still hanging around), I see a shadow of Kurtz in him. Not that Patrick had lost himself to the darkness, or anything at all like that. I don’t know why I brought it up. I just made the association in my head somehow.
Anyway, he was insistant that we try our luck with the crowd outside the bar, but I just felt too hollow. I made up something about living a few blocks away, about being tired, and thanks for a great night. Patrick took it in stride and bid me a beautiful life. I felt relieved that he was taking his spotlight elsewhere. But what I remember most of those last few minutes wasn’t him, really, it was her. We were both looking at the little sapling, shivering in the cool air, and she turned and looked at me, just before following Patrick toward the bar. Her eyes were like sad full moons. We looked at each other for a few moments, and then she turned and quickly walked away with him.
I stood there, rooted to the spot, struck dumb. Her and me, we were like patients in hospital beds, sneaking pills when the doctors weren’t looking. I watched the two of them disappear into the night, and then I turned around. There were a few cars blowing menacingly over on Guadalupe. my heart ached for them.