OLD MAN'S TREE
by Timothy Elder © 1999
The dark road ahead fades into a soft blur.
"Boy! Vake, op," the old man screams from the back seat and slaps the back of my head with his gnarled hand.
I pull with both hands on the big wheel of the late model Packard. The heavy automobile points again to the center of the right lane.
"It's a W, not a V," I say. "I keep telling you."
"I am your father, boy. I vill speak how I vant," he says and slaps the back of my head again. I brush my fallen hair back on top of my head and smile into the outside mirror that I always have tilted in my direction.
"Now boy, I am takingk my nap so do not be fallingk back to sleep," the old man says. "You hearingk me boy. Vhere is my nappingk blanket. You cleaningk it like I told you."
"Yes Pa," I say. "I cleaned it like you told me."
I reach to the empty passenger seat beside me and place my hand on the quilt my mother had made. It was created, like many of her creations, from the odds and ends of left over material. The colors are gay and happy, like she was, and you can tell she had put a lot of thought into the blanket's complex geometric shapes. I've always wondered where she found the patience to finish. I hand the blanket back to the old man. My father begins wrestling with his napping blanket.
The back seat of the Packard is as big as a small living room couch. The old man has placed over-stuffed, floral print pillows on the seat and has fringed brocade curtains with hanging ornamental cloth balls in the windows. He has a small end table for his drinks and food on the floor behind my seat. One thing you can say about the old man, he has a certain "art" about him. He thinks it looks like a Rolls Royce. I think it looks like a hearse.
He continues pulling and tucking the blanket until it is shaped around him like a caterpillar's cocoon. He lays his head on the big fluffy pillows and goes to sleep almost immediately. I look at clock on the car's dashboard and count off the minutes: Three, then four, then five. The old man jerks out of his sleep sitting bolt upright, on cue, like in a stage performance.
"Vas is loos!" he says. "Sitzenzee on kline a hinder, sheiss koff." And rattles on in his unintelligible German tongue until I say, like always, "Pa, you're dreaming again."
In the rear view mirror I can see his eyes regain consciousness. He then says, "Ach," like he is clearing his throat. "Sheiss koff," he says to me and slaps the back of my head. "Shit-head or shit-for-brains," is the translation.
I look at the interior rear view mirror and see the old man's eyes. They are eerily illuminated by the car's head lights reflecting off the road ahead and the flat glass of the Packard's windshield. His bushy black and gray eyebrows slant severely down toward his nose. The corners of his eyes are heavily creased and dotted with black pores. Small pockets of mucus have collected along the lids and eyelashes. His eyes are a cold pale blue covered with a sort of film, like a vulture's eyes.
It is his eyes themselves I hate most. It is then that I decided it is right to kill the old man, something I have been thinking about for a long time.
* * *
The old man lays down. He is asleep now and will be until we arrived at the farm. I look at the dashboard's clock. Both hands are pointing straight up. Less than an hour to go.
The old man is over sixty but insists I drive him north to Sioux City twice a month to visit my aunt. She isn't really my father's sister. She is his half-sister who became part of the family when my grandfather remarried to her mother. My real grandmother died giving birth to my uncle which was a waste because a year later he died from some baby fever.
Poor dirt-farmers they were. Not like us now.
Twice a month we would leave the farm at dawn in the Packard and be outside of Sioux City, where my aunt lives, by late morning. We would sit with my aunt and her husband, my uncle I suppose, and talk about the weather and farming news until noon. Then we would have a lunch of sauerkraut, sausage and biscuits that my aunt made. My aunt really knows how to cook.
After lunch my father always gives me a roll of bills and sends me and my uncle into Sioux City to pick up groceries for my aunt and supplies for the farm. My uncle's eyes light up when he sees the wad of cash. He know there is always some money left over after we buy supplies and he knows he is going to get a piece of it. We then go to town leaving the old man alone with his sister.
My uncle has a not-so-secret love affair with the bottle, usually the cheap stuff. He is always eager to taste some of the good sippin' whiskey that the extra money will buy. We are always gone the entire afternoon and pull into the driveway at supper time, my uncle drunk as a skunk.
My uncle is an idiot. If he wasn't such a fool and a drunk I would have told him the truth long age. The money we spend is nothing to my father. A rubber-banded roll of twenties is chump change to a man that owns thousands of acres of prime wheat land and has other people doing the farming. There is so much more where that came from. Yes, my uncle is an idiot. He doesn't know anything.
Why do I put up with the old man's crap you might ask. Because there is a bank in Omaha with my name on it. To get my hands on the money all I have to do is wait and that's something I'm good at. How long could the old man live anyway? Maybe another five or ten years, tops. Or maybe less. A lot less. That's the angle I've got figured.
* * *
Stripe, stripe, stripe, stripe… Fifteen stripes to my five heart beats; fifty mile per hour. I look at the speedometer and it's right on the nose. I'll bet this Packard could get up to seventy or even eighty, but if the old man wakes up and sees we are doing over fifty he might cut off my allowance money. Then how can I buy those picture books from France. Couldn't due without those.
Blackness all around. A fella could go crazy out here in the middle of Nowhere, Nebraska with no one to talk to. How did my grandparents do it? No roads. No telephones. No plumbing. Year after grinding year in the fields behind a plow or washing cloths in that damn cold river. How could my father be born into it. Jesus.
At least my father knew how to play it smart. He had a head for business and learned to speak English, more or less.
In the twenties everyone was putting their money into the stock market. The old man thought people were dumb as cows to give money to someone else and expect it to double or triple. He said it was like planting one seed and expecting three stalks to grow.
He had a tired expression that he used to say all the time. He said it was, "…the huddled masses yearning to be free of their money."
Back when my grandfather was alive and ruler of the farm, the old man tried to convince him not to buy more land with a bank loan, like everyone else, but instead to pay off all their debt and save their money. He said when the stock market failed again, like back in the nineties, they could buy all the land they wanted for a song.
It was a long time ago, but I remember my grandfather and the old man arguing about it all the time. My grandfather was getting on in years and died not long afterward.
Good luck for the old man. Bad luck for my grandfather, what with him being caught in a wheat thresher like he did. At least that's what the old man said. He was the only other person there when it happened so there was no one else to say it was different.
When the Depression started ruining people back East most everyone around these parts thought it was city folks messing up their lives. Soon everyone had messed up lives. Then the old man swooped in like a vulture and picked the surrounding counties clean of all the best and most fertile land.
An unseasonable drought created the Dust Bowl in much of the mid-west, but not us. The old man had thought of everything. Years before any drought he built a dam in the Gravel Goose Neck canyon. It slowly filled with run-off from each winter's snow melt. The only water for miles was on his land. Where did all the wheat come from during those dark years? That's right, the old man.
Then World War Two harvested bundles of cash and the hatred of every down-on-his-luck farmer that was now working the old man's land.
I can hear the old man mumbling in the back seat. Every once and a while he says my aunt's name. What could two old geezers like them be talking about all afternoon that makes the old man want to visit her so often. Probably reliving their childhood or something.
Here it comes. I can see the faint outline of Old Man's Tree up ahead.
When the county finally got around to laying paved roads out here they came up to a huge tree. Since the roads are laid to follow property lines the construction crew could either dynamite the big tree and pave straight through, or make an elbow bend in the road and go around. Considering the county had more cheap labor at that time than explosives they made the bend in the road and went around.
The tree gets it's name from, you guessed it, the old man. It marks the end of my father's land or the beginning of his empire, depending upon how you look at it.
On more than one occasion I've heard a story. It was not told directly to me, but overheard in nearby bars late on Saturday nights: Toward the end of the Depression, before people began trusting the banks again (and I was back East at prep school) farmers used to drive out to the old man's place to pay loan installments on the money they had borrowed from him. Sometimes they had to bring their wives along.
The saying would go - "When you drive out to pay your installment to the old man and you come up to Dead Man's Bend, (the elbow bend in the road at the tree,) you might as well speed up and take Old Man's Tree in the teeth instead of slowing down and taking it in the Bend."
Some story, huh. But I know how they feel. I've been taking it in the Bend from him my entire life. No, not like you're thinking. I'm not some nancy-boy even though I'm not married. I like girls just fine. (You're sick for thinking that, you know that!) I'm talking about having to grovel and beg for everything.
I'm getting excited now. I've been practicing for weeks. When the old man takes his afternoon walk along the main fence line I am in the Packard. Actually in and out of the big car. I sit in the drivers seat and test the door to make sure it opens smoothly.
I then heave myself out of the open door and roll on the ground, marking and measuring the distance. I have gotten to were I can clear the car by seven feet from a sitting leap. If I take a moment to position myself on the car's running board I can make it ten feet.
Six feet is all I will need.
Winter has ended and the spring thaw has flooded the wide road side ditches with water. It will be cold, but at sixty miles an hour it should break my fall as I leap from the moving car into the water. And without a driver the big, heavy car will plow straight into that big tree. It will look like an accident. With no one else around, there will be no one to say it was different.
The speedometer has been steadily climbing for the past fifteen minutes, slowly accelerating so as not to wake the old man. I know this road like the back of my hand, every bump and rut, every cattle crossing and culvert. Nothing ever changes out here. Tonight's the night. Everything is going as planned.
Earlier this morning, when we were leaving for Sioux City, the old man yelled at me to watch out for an on-coming dump truck as if I were blind.
The old man has persuaded or rather blackmailed the county into laying sewer lines out to the farm. The septic tank works fine, but he is talking about some nonsense called sub-divisions where he will build houses for Army veterans. What a scream. Who will want to live in the country. Not me. Not after I get what coming to me.
There it is, sixty miles an hour. Time to go, but for a minute I'm having doubts. I could wait for the old man to die on his own. I would have all that money free and clear. I'm almost sure he put it in his will that way.
And then I think, "I shouldn't kill my own father should I?" A smile comes to my face.
"Yeah," I say to myself. I cover my mouth with my hand to keep from giggling, "Yes, I should."
I then drift the Packard over to the left side of the road by the ditch, open the door and uncoil my legs like steel bed springs.
As I fly through the air like a newly freed young vulture I immediately see that something has gone wrong. Old Man's Tree looks terribly wrong in the growing light of the approaching car's headlights. And to my horror I look down to see that the ditch I am dropping into has been drained, exposing muddy branches and sharp rocks.
* * *
When I wake up my mouth has a dry, crusty feel to it and my neck itches. As my eyes adjust to the light I see that I am staring at a mirror, but I don't recognize myself. Somehow I look different.
I then try to get up and find that I can't move. I am laying on my back on a flat surface about the height of a dining room table. I strain my eyes to look down and see that the chafing at my neck is from a collar of some sort that is embedded into metal that looked like the top of a washing machine.
"What…" I whisper. "What is… this," I say a little louder. I try to move again and can't. And then I cry with growing unease, "Oh my God. What is this."
"Ahh…" comes the voice from above my head. "You are finally avake. Now ve are havingk a little talk."
The old man's voice surrounds my head as he walks from one side of the room to the other.
"I am a man who has much luck, but sadly, you are not," the old man chortles. "You, havingk no plans for the future, have alveys hated me and my plans for the future. But I am so glad to be havingk them." He pauses, "For both of us." There is a smile in his voice. "You vill see."
"I'm so thirsty," I say. "I want some water." I am trying to keep any panic out of my voice but I am beginning to loose control.
"I am sure you do, boy, I am sure you do, but oh, I should not be callingk you boy anymore," he says. "Look at you. My, my, but you do not look so good. You do not look so vell at all I am sad to say." A gnarled hand comes into view and makes a small adjustment to the mirror over my head.
"What…" my tongue is sticking to my teeth. My mind is still groggy. I could have been out for a couple of days.
"It's a W not a V," I say. "Well, you mean well, not vell," I say.
"I am your father, boy. I vill speak how I vant," he says loudly.
There is a loud sound of a hand slapping metal. My head moves slightly to one side as if the table I am laying on has been bumped.
"Just tell me what happened," I say.
"Vhat happened, indeed," he says. "Very good things for some. Do you hear that sound off in the distance. Hmmm. Perhaps you do not. Or perhaps you simply do not recognize it. It is the sound of progress.
"Happy families livingk in their happy homes that I have built for them and the government pays quite handsomely for. Nothingk too good for our fightingk boys, you know.
"If you have had thoughts before that I vas rich, vell, I am far beyond that now. I am…" he pauses in thought for a moment. "I am respected. Only vast vealth can purchase that."
"What happened to me is what I mean," I say weakly but I think I already know.
"Vhat happened to you," he repeats. "Vhat has not happened to you is a better question.
"Oh, there vere the doctors, and the nurses, and the specialists, and they all soon came to the same conclusion that I have known about you since you vere a boy. They said that if you had a stiffer spine then the automobile accident vould not have broken it."
"I'm in one of those things aren't I," I say. I can hear a steady crank and whooshing sound under me.
"Yhaa, Yhaa. For these many years past since the accident you have been in this contraption." His hand pats lightly on the metal near my head.
The old man continues to pace the room from one side to the other.
"It vas very expensive to run the diesel generator all duringk the day and night for my boy, but that stopped vhen the county brought electricity for the new sub-division."
"It's an iron lung, isn't it," I say.
"It is vhat you have always needed, boy, a little iron in your weak, useless life," he says.
"The accident… " I try to go on but my lips are too dry.
"Here, boy," he says and places a thin tube into my mouth. "Now suck."
"A little harder, boy," he says not unkindly, "A little harder."
And I do.
"The accident, vell, now, that vas somethingk you do not see every day," he says. "It gave me quite a fright vhen I vas so rudely thrown to the floor of my car. It vas a good thingk I had my pillows."
"But oh, you should see my new car," he says. "Nothingk stuffy for this old man. It is a shiny, brand new car called a T-Bird. A most beautiful bone-white color. And the roof comes off. It is the kind of car a young minded, middle-age man, who could afford it, might like to drive. Like you, a rich man's son. But oh, you do not drive, do you."
"The accident, the accident," I rasp.
"Oh yes, the accident. I have such an active life I sometimes get sidetracked," the old man says.
"Yhaa, vell, vehn I picked myself from the floor of the car I found I had skinned both my knees on the table. And a broken wine glass had cut me but good so I was bleedingk. Vhen I saw that you vere gone from the front seat I had thought you vere goingk for help.
"I got out of the car to look and found the front of the automobile was completely covered by a mountain of sand, no doubt from the road crew truck ve saw that morning. Do you remember? I told you to look out."
"Yes," I whisper, "Like it was yesterday," I say.
"Ho, ho, ho. I see you have a sense of humor about this . . . accident," The old man chuckles.
He says, "I heard a mewlingk sound, like a little lost kitten, comingk from the road side ditch. I vent to look and there you vere all bloody and broken. And I thought, 'Oh my poor boy has been thrown from the car,' that is vhat I thought. But so far avay and in the opposite direction?"
"That vould not due, so, I dragged you from the ditch, as best I could, back to the car. Ve do not vant people to think bad things about us do ve. Ve do not vant people to think that a boy vould vant to kill his own father, do ve." The old man slams his hand against the metal side of the iron lung. "Do ve, boy."
"No," I whimper. I want cry but no tears will come.
"So," the old man says, "if anyone asks, that is, if you every talk to anyone again you vill say vhat?"
"It was an accident," I say staring unseeing at the mirror. "An accident."
"Yhaa, yhaa. Ve vere very lucky that night, you and I, that ve hit that tree," he says.
This breaks me from my trance. "What? What do you mean, lucky," I say. "God-damn it. Look at me," I scream.
"Vell, think about it, boy," he says softly next to my ear. "Ve could have drowned." The old man then leaves the room.
"Drowned?" I say and then the needles of a chill spread across the back of my neck creep up my head.
He was right. I hadn't thought this whole thing through. There was Dead Man's Bend, then Old Man's Tree, and, yes, next, further on, was Gravel Goose Neck, the dammed canyon. In the springtime the winter's snow melt fills the roadside ditches which flood into Gravel Goose Neck filling it to capacity.
I could have driven off Dead Man's Bend, straight past Old Man's Tree and into the cold, deep water of Gravel Goose Neck. I would have had more than enough time to get out of the heavy car as it sank while the old man drowned in the back seat wrapped in his napping blanket. I should have thought of that, but I didn't.
I am staring again into my own eyes in the mirror tilted toward me and I'm wondering how I could have been so stupid not to see it. I am thinking that my life has been wasted. I deserve better than this. I was meant for better.
The old man returns to the room. He places a chain behind my head. He sits and I hear him making himself comfortable.
A gnarled hand sharply moves the mirror up. I am now looking into the reflection of the old man's eyes. I cannot move my head or take my eyes from the mirror and the sight of his cold pale blue filmy eyes.
"You are not goingk anyvhere," the old man says and an awful smile creases the corners of his eyes. "But then, you never were… were you."
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