What kind of son of a bitch plants a Ficus Benjamina catty corner to their driveway? Not me. No siree Bob. When we bought the property back in ’78, that sucker was already a stout bush. Pathetic unkempt juniper leaves sprouting every which way, waxy and in need of a good haircut. Pitiful, even for Charlie Brown. Chuck would have refused it for sure.
“How lovely.” Jojo said. “What a sweet tree.”
Of course she liked it. It looked harmless back then, plus she knew bupkis about horticulture. I had the green thumb in the family. I am not an expert per se, but I sorta knew my way around arboriculture, soil management and such and that creep was anything but sweet. Jojo adored the porch swing and the white picket fence. It had that old timey story book feel. Quaint and charming.
“The kids could have a lemonade stand and we could have a neighborhood pot luck. Just think, tuna noodle casserole. Your favorite. I’ll even crumble potato chips on top.”
She relaxed kicking the swing to and fro. It creaked as her strawberry tresses hovered in the warm breeze. She looked comfortable there. Like she belonged, like she was part of the architecture. Didn’t help that it was a perfect NorCal day. The sun enshrined the home in a glittery halo.
“It’s really a fantastic property, Mr. Abernathy. A great deal. It won’t last long.” Damn real estate agent just wanted her commission. Look at her. All smug-like, hugging her clipboard as if it were a toddler.
“Yea, Sid. A great deal.” Jojo winked and gave the swing another push. It continued with its discreet hypnotic squeaks.
“It’s perfect and you know it.”
“But the Ficus.”
“Ficus shmikus. You always focus on the silliest things. Oh, and do you smell the Honeysuckles? It’s just divine.” She extended her arms skyward and inhaled deeply.
She was in love, and that meant I was a goner. Practically, had no say in the matter. So we bought it. How bad could it be? It was just an indoor plant that got a whiff of freedom. Who was I to judge. Maybe, it would behave. It was liberated after all.
I was more of an azalea man myself and quite partial to daffodils and hydrangeas. Perfectly plump blooms that were ever so vibrant and decadent. Their fragrances were damn right delightful and the species was easy going and obedient. I thought about adding a few to the front yard, just below the porch to the left of the swing. And so, I did. It framed the house asymmetrically with a pop of color, just like Dale Lockwood’s from across the way. Dale gave me tips from time to time. Gardening relaxed me. It cleared the statistics and numerals from my brain. You see, I’m a CPA.
The neighborhood had a crime watch, community association, holiday bake sales and quarterly pancake breakfasts. They blockaded two avenues with bike racks and set up picnic tables and industrial grills. Mrs. Pinkerton from across the street brought homemade syrup all the way from Vermont. Its sticky amber plastered its way on to every chin. Jojo was ecstatic and the kids seemed to enjoy school. We settled in quite nicely. I even fastened a tire swing to the Ficus when it got to a gangly height. At first, I embraced it as a part of the yard’s natural habitat, but it all went downhill after it encroached onto Finks property. That teenage sapling was an unruly beast.
“Abernathy, Jeeze Louise. Look at it.”
Finks loomed in the undercarriage, straddling the driveway and his prize winning wisteria. The tree’s branches sprouted obliquely and spilled into a bushy green umbrella. Its trunk was a mass of ashen tributaries. Finks hopped trying to avoid the abandoned figs that had littered the lawn into a ripe minefield. I had just tidied up with my daughter, Katie. She was nine but obsessed with rakes and shovels and giggled every time she got a good scoop.
“It’s tip-toeing its way over to the wisteria. I won’t have it, I won’t.”
“Calm down, Finks. It’s not going to mess with your wisteria. Rest assured we will address it. As a matter of fact, I was just about to make my way to the hardware store.”
Finks was now back on his side trimming the rhododendrons with pruners. He clipped in short spurts duck walking and sneezing from one bush to the next. He was a black socks and sandals kind of guy with an immaculate yard. Stunning even, despite that he was allergic to most of it.
“Thank you. Perfect. You know how a ficus can be.” He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and continued snipping.
“Oh, believe me. I do.”
He shook his finger trying to shame it into submission, but who could take him seriously. A ginormous cowboy hat swallowed up his peanut head and he smelled of sour brie. What a putz.
I tipped my Giants cap and headed inside. It was always something with that guy. First the sprinklers and then my son Brendan playing his rock and roll too loud, but he was right. The ficus was starting to spill on to his property, roots like greedy tentacles. It looked harmless from the kitchen window, but when you squinted, its branches twisted into a mass of nasty snarls scratching and grimacing with menacing glee.
“Jo, heading to Capitol Ace. Need anything?”
She bounded down the stairs and leaned over the railing. A bobby pin dangled from her top lip. She was in the midst of getting ready. Dress halfway zipped, one gold hoop swayed from her right ear. I whistled.
“Hot stuff. Where are you going?”
“Cut it out Sid. Where are we going.”
She removed the bobby pin and affixed it to the nape of her neck. Where were we going? I was going to the hardware store to incarcerate a foliage delinquent. I shrugged. She was a social butterfly who joined any hootenanny campaigning like she was the mayor of Sacramento, yakking it up with Tom, Dick, or Harry. Me, I’d rather stay home and watch Miami Vice. Jo shimmied to zip up the rest and then hooked on the other hoop.
“We have dinner reservations downtown with the Pinkertons. They’re back from Vermont. Remember? Liz is coming to watch the kids.”
“Crap. I completely forgot.”
“Sid! Honest to God.” She rolled her eyes.
“Finks is having a fit about the ficus. Let me run to the hardware store and I’ll meet you at the restaurant.”
Her smile flat lined as her cheeks heated into a fiery shade of crimson. “Can’t this wait till tomorrow? It’s just a stupid tree Sidney, not brain surgery. Do you have to make a federal case out of it?” She exhaled, puffing her bangs vertically.
“It’s not a federal case, it’s the ficus. So, you know... sixty minutes max. I promise.” Now she stared. Not one blink. I stared back. It was a Mexican standoff. Pistols drawn, sunset dipping below the horizon, tumbleweed blowin’ on by.
“Mom! Mom!” Brendan hollered.
“Fine. Sixty minutes. Coming B!” She whirled and marched back upstairs taking two steps at a time, heels drumming against the floorboards.
Well, I was in the doghouse for sure, but there was no avoiding it. The ficus had to be handled before it went full on rogue. No time to waste. We let it run rampant for eight years and it was time to pay the piper.
I spent fifteen minutes at Ace and got a good smattering of gizmos and gardening accouterments. I wasn’t quite sure what would rein it in, but something would. I had already done a fair amount of research at the public library. I’m no dummy. I had an extensive list. I knew this day would come; besides, a Ficus is a Ficus.
It was early May and already sweltering. It didn’t usually heat up till mid-July, but whoa doggie Sacramento had reached a scorching 95 at noon. That must be why Finks had his panties in a bunch. It probably exacerbated his allergies. I needed to hydrate before heading out. No sense in getting heat exhaustion. I clanked frosty cubes into a highball, sliced fresh lime, and watched as the gin melted into fizzy gurgles. The bubbles tickled the tip of my nose as a cool swig traveled down my throat. That hit the spot, una mas.
The ficus was now a gigantic creep towering like Jack’s beanstalk. It loomed heavy over the yard and shaded most of the driveway with its emerald wig. I unloaded my treasures from Ace and knelt down at the base of its entangled roots and began to dig. It needed to be wide enough to cover the entire circumference.
“Papa. Can I help?” Katie was barefoot, in front of me jumping up and down. Her cheeks were stained with sticky popsicle nectar, two garden spades flanked each palm.
“Does Liz know you are out here?”
“Sorry sweetie, not this time. This is serious business and I am in a rush. Go back inside and you can help me finish tomorrow. We don’t want to worry Liz, and your mama will have my head if I am late.”
“But Papa, you’re always busy.” The tears welled up. She was so into shovels and hoes, it was insane. I mean what nine-year-old asks for yard work? I hoped this would continue into her teenage years. Then she could mow the lawn.
“Come on Katie girl. Tomorrow, we will tidy up the whole yard. You can be in charge. Okay…?”
“Okay....” She kicked the grass, filthy toes capturing a few blades.
“Good deal. Chin up little lady, I bet Liz has another popsicle for you.” And with that she sprinted inside. I took another sip of the Rickey and glanced at my Timex. I only had twenty minutes before I needed to jump in the shower. I picked up the hand shovel and hacked, one trowel after another bulldozing tiny pebbles and entangled branches. Brunette particles coated my palms and the soil stank of ammonia. It was moist but foul. The root system had already invaded the driveway as well as Finks wisteria. It assaulted the concrete by cracking the edges and lifting corners. Slender fractures multiplied into tiny streams. It was just a matter of time before it boosted up chunks and tackled gas lines. The digging went quickly. I was able to loop around with minimal hiccups. I looked up. The sun had plummeted into a burnt semi-circle as a balmy breeze sent goosebumps up my backside. It wasn’t such a sweltering hot box anymore. I wiped the sweat from my brow and watched the metal plow into the dirt with each tender strike.
“That’ll teach you, punk.” I stood admiring my work. It was dark out now with only the garage’s light flooding the lawn with its artificial glow. The ficus didn’t look so sinister cuffed up like a common criminal.
“Sidney Abernathy! Hells bells, you said sixty minutes. What happened?” Jojo stood in front of the Buick. I didn’t even hear her pull up. The engines subtle growl had cooled into a smooth murmur. She tapped her left heel in the haze (still dressed to the nines), while her shadow skipped in the moonlight. Her perfect French twist had come undone and she smelled of Chardonnay. I stood up and brushed the muck off my chinos, I was a ripe mess.
“What are you talking about? It’s only been forty-five minutes.” Should have worn gardening gloves. My palms were pitch black.
“How many Gin Rickey’s did you have? It’s been three hours. I called five times and no one picked up.”
“I think Liz took the kids for pizza.” I glanced at my Timex, it was eleven. Shit.
“So embarrassing to sit there with the Pinkertons all by myself. I didn’t know what to say. You could have been dead for all I knew. I mean really Sidney, par for the course.”
“But the ficus.” I rubbed my palms together, shaking off only a few particles. She paced back and forth, headlights tracing her every move.
“You care more about that ridiculous tree than me.”
“Jo, come on...”
“Sidney!” She froze and pointed like she was aiming a pistol.
There was no sense in arguing when she was in this state. It was best to let her jabber and get it all out. She wasn’t shy and played a little dirty, bringing up all the times I was late or selfish. How I ate too many glazed donuts. How her mother was right. She never should have married a god damn accountant. She knew it right after the first date when I was fifteen minutes late. Red flags, so many red flags and she ignored them. And don’t make her bring up missing Katie’s first communion, disgraceful. She paced some more and threw her hands in the air. I just stood there, taking my wallop like a man. I didn’t mean to miss dinner, time just got away from me. I had to curb the ficus. That was the responsible thing to do, the neighborly duty. I would explain it all in the morning. She would understand. She always did.
“Don’t. I suggest you spend the night on the sofa.” She flipped her curls and left me shvitzing on the lawn. I watched as she slinked through the service porch minding the door’s elongated groan and flicked off the house lights.
The halogen radiated on to the tree’s ridges swooping them into a sly smile. Game. Set. Match. Point. Ok, round one to you. There was no way that this simple sapling was going to get the best of me. This was Alcatraz baby, and there was no way off the island.
I ate too many glazed donuts? What the hell did that mean? Was she calling me fat? I glanced down. My belly extended into a jiggly mound, tugging at the middle button on my shirt. Maybe I did eat too many donuts? But that was beside the point, she over-reacted. So, I got a little distracted. What was the big deal? It was for a good cause.
A bouquet of roses and homemade french toast calmed her down in the morning. I slathered on the thick maple magic and sprinkled powdered sugar. Saying sorry was the right thing to do. Didn’t matter if I was or not.
“See, everything is better in the daylight.”
“You’re not off the hook, Sid. You have to stop obsessing over that tree.”
“It’s handled, luv. The ficus won’t give us anymore trouble.”
She nodded drowning the toast in the sticky amber and took a large bite.
The fence worked, actually better than expected. I had my doubts, but the cage kept its tentacles at bay curbing them into solitary confinement for eight long years. I checked on it, maintaining the moat and swapping out the metal, digging my fingers into the soil to check the temperature. It felt gritty and cool. Finks wisteria remained unscathed, but the ficus thrived in the earth’s underbelly. It secretly flourished snaking out, inch by inch. The progression was microscopic, expanding with a patient assault. Willowy branches hovered scratching its stems on the roof and the roots burgeoned under the concrete slicing it in half. Its linebacker girth slunk its way towards the street.
It’s was Katie’s eighteenth birthday and JoJo planned a fancy party at the country club.
“You only turn eighteen once, plus she never had a sweet sixteen.” She hired a party planner, got a cake in the shape of a one and eight, and even got a DJ.
“I can’t believe my baby is all grown up.”
“Mom, don’t embarrass me. God.”
Seemed like only yesterday that she needed me to check under the bed for the Boogie Man. She towered over Jojo by at least three inches, skinny, knock kneed and with wild hair just like her mama. Jo nodded and dangled the keys in front of her, jingling them like wind chimes.
“Bye Pops, see you there.” She blew a kiss.
Jo leaned at the kitchen counter checking things off with the swoop. She was just as beautiful as the day we met with only a few wisps of grey at her temples.
“Can you believe Katie is eighteen. Just boggles the mind.”
“Uh huh.” She continued with-out looking up.
“Need any help.”
“No, I’m good.” She shoved the papers into her purse and walked out. “See you there.” She mumbled.
I watched from the kitchen as she backed the old Buick out of the driveway. The house was peaceful with the girls gone and Brendan still at school for the summer. I could hear the crickets chirping underneath the floorboards. They had been doing it for years, but I couldn’t figure out where they were, and Jo was over me pulling up the wood. Another stupid project she said. I made a Rickey. I had a few hours left before the party would start. Katie was off to college next fall and Brendan would be a senior at Berkeley. Hadn’t seen much of Jo lately. She got a part time job at the Crocker Art Museum working as a docent. Maybe, when the kids were both off we could take a trip, just the two of us. She always wanted to go to Florence. That would be nice.
I strolled outside, it was beautiful afternoon. Not too hot, not too cold with only a slight breeze. Finks wisteria was in full bloom with its lilac luminosity, but something stank. Kind of like rotten eggs. I trailed the smell, sniffing around the yard and landed at the end of the driveway by the mailbox. And there it was. The roots had severed the asphalt and ruptured the gas line. Hundreds of intertwined twigs suffocated the pipe. It was cracked, stems spilling onto the concrete. I heard the sirens in the distance, blaring and beeping until it was all I could hear.
It was a rainbow of chaos after they arrived. Lights flashing, Fireman shouting. They roped yellow caution tape around the trench and directed me across the street. Droplets misted on to my forearms and someone plopped an oxygen mask over my nose. They yanked at ginormous hoses, hammered, and sprayed a cascade of liquid. I sat down on Lockwood’s lawn, grass tickling my calves. A tiny crowd formed, peeping and whispering. How could this have happened? I was so careful.
“Sid, are you all right?” Dale Lockwood bent over me, gripping my left shoulder. I lifted the mask.
“But I curbed it.”
“Oh, Sid”. He shook his head and patted my back. “You can’t control mother nature. She always wins.”
My muscles pulsated at each appendage like hundreds of tiny needles. I sat there on Lockwood’s lawn until the firefighters departed and the neighborhood crowd dispersed. Dale didn’t mind, I could tell. He felt downright sorry for me.
“Take as long as you need, friend.” I sat there and watched as the sun dipped below the horizon and the moon crept up into the dim sky, flaring its spotlight onto my poor home. Then the old Buick rounded the corner with its headlights glowing and turned sharply into the driveway. She sat in the car for a good ten minutes. I saw her gazing at me through the rearview mirror. She cracked the door and dipped out one foot, letting the overhead light swath her in rosy haze. She lifted the other foot, stood up and shut the door. She was barefoot and tiptoed over, dangling her shoes from her left palm. She sat down. We both stared at the house, mesmerized by the yellow tape that imprisoned it into a crime scene.
“It hit the gas line.” She nodded and kicked a medium sized rock and plopped her heels next to her.
“I don’t know what to say Jo. I checked on it, I swear. But god damn, it’s a ficus. I knew it from day one. That tree is a menace.”
She nodded again but said nothing. No tears, no yelling. She hugged her knees in tight, like she was that silly freckle faced girl from thirty years ago who loved mint chip ice cream from Vic’s. She was calm. Like nothing had happened. Like I hadn’t missed our daughter’s eighteenth birthday, like we were just there to gaze at the stars and enjoy the summer air. The gas smell had dissipated and you could pick up a hint of honeysuckle.
“I can’t believe I missed the party. I’ll make it up to her.”
“I’m sure you will.” She sighed. “I always loved this house.”
“Sid.” She turned, grabbed my hand and squeezed it. Her palm felt soft. She stroked my cheek and then let go.
“I can’t do this, Sid.”
“Us. There is no us.”
“Jo, you’re just tired. It’s been a rough night, let’s get some rest.”
“Sidney, you know I’m right.” She gazed at me and shrugged.
“The ficus ate at us, bit by bit, leaf by leaf. Its limbs invading time. Shedding its shiny foliage from spring to winters cracked branches. That’s us, Sid. We’re in winter, and we never leave. You hibernate and distract. You’ve imprisoned yourself into fixing things that do not matter and in the midst of it, you missed life. You missed us.”
What the hell was she talking about? I was the head of a household. It was my responsibility to take care of things. My mouth was dry and my hands shook a bit
“Jojo, c’mon. I love you and the kids.”
“Then where have you been for the last ten years.”
“Things come up and have to be handled. That can’t be helped. That’s life, Jo.”
She stood up and lifted her heels with her index and middle finger.
“Think about it Sid.” She started to cross the street and stopped in the middle. I was still sitting on Lockwood’s lawn.
“Remember that day we looked at the place. It was sunny and bright and you could smell the honeysuckles.”
“Would have been nice to have that pot luck and lemonade stand, huh?” She smiled and finished crossing the street. She opened the door to the old Buick and chucked her shoes onto the passenger side and got in. The engine stalled for a second, but then purred into a light hum. She backed the car out so it was parallel to Lockwood’s property and rolled down the window. She waved, and then put the car in drive, puttering out of the neighborhood until the ruby of the taillights were just two tiny dots marking the horizon.
My pants were damp from the dew. I tried to brush off the blades that had taken up residence on my rear. I limped across the street. The house was in complete darkness. The fire department pulled the power so as not to erupt the neighborhood into a fiery apocalypse. It was a lovely home, although it could have used a fresh coat of paint and a new roof. She was just upset about the party. Things would be different in the morning. God damn it, I tried, over and over, making everything perfect. To give her a happy home, to fit in this “Leave it to Beaver” community. I kicked some pebbles. Should I have ignored it? The ficus? No, that’s not right.
Its bark was gray and mottled with white dimples. I patted at its smooth, yet coarse exterior. I hated this fucking tree. Never hated anything more in my life, and how can you hate a tree? It’s stupid. What a waste. I kicked it, but its girth was too wide to feel anything. I looked down. A small axe lay at the base, the fire department must have left it. I picked it up. It was surprisingly light and the blade shone in the moonlight. I started to hack at its trunk, each strike with more intensity. I swung like I was up to bat, screaming at the top of my lungs. My forearms throbbed as the axe reverberated all the way to my chin, tears percolating. I kept hammering even though it was getting harder to see. I was out of breath so I stopped and gazed up. The tree remained unscathed towering in perfect posture. Not a lean, not a tilt, not shaken, or disturbed. I took one last hack leaving the axe to rest in its belly. A large limb wobbled and then ruptured from the trunk plummeting to the earth and colliding with my skull. I was now lying flat in the driveway staring up at its bushy green umbrella. My fingers tingled and I couldn’t feel my toes. I blinked. It would have been nice to have that lemonade stand. She was right. I closed my lids, I could only see the tips of my lashes and then it went dark.
Jo was swinging on the porch, crossing her feet and pushing it with the tip of her big toe. It was a beautiful day. The sun enshrined the property in a glittery halo. She smiled.
“How lovely, what a sweet tree.”
Michelle Blair Wilker is a Los Angeles-writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Across the Margin, Whistlingfire, Hollywood Dementia, Unheard LA, Felix Magazine, Storgy, and The Huffington Post. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s November 2012 contest for new writers and shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. In 2017, she attended DISQUIET: Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and was featured in The New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. Her first book, Chain Linked Stories was published in June through Post Hill Press and Simon & Schuster. The collection was recently selected for the 2018 Montana Book Festival.