After the storm and high winds passed through during the night, the local television stations said it hadn't been a tornado that had caused all the damage like everyone thought it might have been, but that it was high winds instead. I didn't care how the meteorologists classified it or what term got applied to it, because the results were the same one way or another -- there were two large trees down in our yard and another one leaning off to its side like it was waiting for a tiny zephyr to come along so it could fall too, so, tornado or not, I was going to have to get somebody to get rid of them. It was for sure I couldn't do it myself; they were too much for me and my cheap chain saw to dicker with. The way those trees looked through the back window, so imposing and immense with roots the size of a school bus, I'd do just as good finding myself a giant redwood somewhere and start trying to remove it all by myself. It would be about the same difference.
I didn't have much experience with tree trimmers or stump removers or companies in that vein, so I typed in tree services near me on the computer and looked at what came up. There were four or five places listed, and I called the first one at the top that had a couple of okay reviews. It wasn't so much the reviews that swayed me -- every company listed had good write-ups -- but it was the name of the place that caught my attention. Forever Arbor was the title, which sounded a lot more original than the others. I figured there might be some sort of artistic integrity with a firm that called itself such a name, that maybe it wasn't composed of a bunch of good old boys and illegals who'd show up with bulldozers and power tools and start sawing down anything and everything in their paths while they cursed and swore and tried to get over their hangovers. I didn't totally understand why there had to be any kind of an artistic aspect tied to me getting fallen trees removed from my yard, but I was I suppose in one of my moods and was hoping for the job to get done without having to watch displays of disgusting behavior and then having to pay for it while I got more disgusted with the human race than I was already.
Forever Arbor wasn't located in town, but had an address up on the ridge in a little community on the outskirts, along the highway toward one of those burgs where white people moved in clusters to get away from the city and escape the blacks and Hispanics and Asians and anybody else who happened to piss them off and scare them if they ever got too close to them, seeing how any group that wasn't white and a good old boy or girl was the enemy and all.
"I'll be by this afternoon to give you an estimate," a man on my voice mail said.
I didn't give it a lot more deliberation, but just spent the rest of the morning puttering around like normal retired men like to do, drinking my coffee and talking to my wife, taking a few minutes to go to Kroger to buy some dog food and light bulbs and cereal, then getting home in time to watch the noon news and catch the weather forecast.
"I think your lumberjack person just pulled in," my wife said.
I walked outside and saw a lanky white guy with a checkered doo-rag wrapped around his head getting out of his car. The car was one of those American pieces of junk the big auto companies came out with a decade or so back when they couldn't manufacture anything that ran longer than five years and decided to concentrate instead on luring would-be buyers with glitz and flashiness, turning out for a time sporty-looking convertibles and pseudo-roadsters before eventually going bankrupt, style over substance being the best way I can describe it. This particular version before me I could bet the ranch hadn't been purchased new by this fellow in the doo-rag who was doing his best to look like he was a genuine Woodstock survivor. My guess was the guy had never even once in his life had funds enough in his name to buy any vehicle anything better than slightly used or have enough for bus fare to get all the way to Woodstock, but there I was, being my usual snob again, instantly and out of habit, acting and thinking in that way I tell myself to try and keep from slipping into so much. But there was also something else about this guy walking toward me in that way he was smiling, like he knew me from somewhere.
That was when I recognized him.
Yeah, I had a feeling who this might be when I first got the message on my answering machine, but since there were a lot of Browns in the world I wasn't totally sure. It had been a long time and I was having trouble remembering if the Brown I knew had been a Stan like this guy, or if his name had been Steve. Sometimes my memory ain't what it used to be -- I'm getting old and forgetful, or maybe I've just smoked my brain out over the years and things up there are just gone forever. I did know his face, though, when I got closer, but I made sure not to call him by his first name until I was certain if he was a Stan or if he was a Steve. I didn't want to hurt the dude's feelings by not remembering him.
But he knew who I was right off the bat. I wasn't sure he was that crazy about seeing me right there out of the blue, but at least he wasn't acting like I was getting ready to pass the Bubonic Plague on him first thing.
"Hey," he said. "Tommy. Long time, no see, man."
We shook hands and plastered smiles on our faces like we were real happy about meeting up again. I thought it was probably best to let him begin first, him talk and me listen, and maybe that way I could get it straight about old Stan or Steve or whoever in the hell was standing in front of me. I was trying to recall what, if anything, had gone on between us from however many years ago it had been, hoping I could at least remember his first name before we started nailing down any details.
"I got your call about the trees," I said, just to get the guy going.
"Yeah, three of them, actually," he said. "There's two that are all the way down, and then there's another one hanging on by a thread. Come around back and I'll show you what I've got."
We walked around the side of the house. Nobody said anything as I followed along. It was like neither one of us had much to say. Me, I couldn't say anything because I couldn't remember the guy's name or much of anything else yet, so I just kept my trap shut. I can't say what he was thinking. There was a pool around the back of the house with a fence around it and a couple of SUVs were parked inside a garage with the doors open. That damn garage was about as big as my house. I thought how old Stan or Steve had himself a nice setup going on here. I could tell he hadn't been hurting for money anytime recently. He was doing better than okay, so maybe there was a good payday in this job coming up.
The trees were on down at the end of the yard. There was another fence back there, but I couldn't see anything but more trees behind it. The two trees hadn't fallen on a neighbor's yard or anything like that, because there wasn't a house around anywhere close. All the trees were good-sized, but easy enough to get to. Me and my guys could back the trucks in here and get finished in no time. It wouldn't be that big of a job getting it done. Half a day, tops.
"I probably should have already had these trees trimmed or taken down before this," Stan or Steve said, "but we always liked having them around. They keep the yard nice and cool in the summer, and my wife likes watching the birds and squirrels they attract."
Tommy Tatum. That's who it was walking around my backyard looking at my trees and measuring limbs and trunks and writing numbers down on a clipboard. I tried to keep from talking too much so he could concentrate on what he was doing with his numbers and his tape measure and not get everything mixed up and mess up the estimate, mainly because I remember how Tommy had never been the brightest headlight on the interstate all those years ago back in school. I tried to let him channel all his faculties in on punching numbers correctly into his calculator, because I knew it wouldn't take a whole lot to distract him and cause him to make a mistake and get everything back-asswards and overcharge the hell out of me on the estimate. Knowing this was Tommy Tatum, it would be a miracle of God if he got everything a hundred percent correct on his first try.
It didn't look like he'd changed much in forty-eight years. He still looked fit enough, even if his prime was long gone by now. He didn't have much of a gut and didn't appear to have trouble getting around. Maybe a little. Maybe he had a slight limp on second glance. I wonder if it was from age or an old football injury.
I remember Tommy was quite the quarterback in his day, quite the damn everything to tell the truth, when it came, that is, to anything that had to do with a ball, a football, a basketball, a baseball, throwing one or catching one or shooting one. Back then he was All-City in everything you could think of when it came to sports, but it was as a quarterback he excelled. He could pass and run and do everything on a football field on a high level, with the exception being having brains enough to call his own plays. Every play always had to get brought in from the sidelines by a substitute just so Tommy would know what to do, because it was for sure he never had any idea what play to call next, because that required at least half a brain in some kind of decent working condition to do so. The joke that went around back then -- even after Tommy got himself a scholarship to one of those schools in the Big Ten -- I forget which one--was that he couldn't stay eligible no matter how many crip, easy classes the school stuck him in, because he just didn't have it up there in the smarts department. He was always just this great jock, so he'd been passed along in school his whole life just so he could be eligible to play sports. I doubt he ever had to crack a book along the way, and if he did, it didn't take. Learning stuff wasn't what Tommy Tatum had much of an aptitude for.
I kept my mouth shut and let him continue his ciphering. It was like watching Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies trying to solve an equation.
It was hard concentrating on getting the estimate written out, because right when I got started it came to me that this guy's name was Stan for sure, and once I got that straight and added the last name Brown to it and said it to myself in my head a couple of times I remembered exactly who he was. This dude was the guy who was so head over heels in love with Joan back in the tenth grade, just before me and Joan started going steady. I remember Joan saying she'd gone out on a date with him once and how he'd kept calling her up wanting to go out again about a thousand times. I never thought the first thing about him at the time though, since I didn't know too much about him, other than he was just another one of those sorry fuckers who took Latin and got his damn picture taken with the Science Club, one of those losers sitting there on the front row of the bleachers wearing button-up sweaters.
So, yeah, I remember him pretty good. It's coming back to me now. He wasn't popular at all, but he still got one of those superlatives they handed out for our class, like I got Most Athletic, and he got something like Most Likely To Fucking Succeed or Most Intellectual or some such shit as that. I remember that picture of him in the annual sitting behind a desk wearing a suit like he was fixing to go to Sunday School or something, him and some skinny chick with glasses I also don't remember sitting across from him like they were both too goddamn smart to ever have to fool with anybody or anything the rest of their lives. Yeah, I think of that picture and it makes me glad it was me who jumped on Joan back then, because some asshole like Stan Brown wouldn't have known what to do with her or where to stick it if he'd ever had the chance. Fuckers like him may have had book sense and made good grades, but not a damn one of them ever had sense enough to know what God gave them a goddamn tallywhacker for.
So, this is who Joan Roberts ended up with, like I haven't known about the two of them being together and getting married for a long time, but this is the first time I've run across either one of them in years. Tommy Tatum is who a pretty girl like Joan chose over everybody else on the face of the earth to live with forever, which is something I still have a hard time understanding. Now me, I never had the first chance with Joan, even if I did try for a while, but it's not like I'm the only one who got eliminated from competition before the race ever got started. No, she made her choice early. She grabbed hold of the biggest dumbass there was, Tommy Tatum, simply because he was a big jock and was popular and handsome, and I guess she hoped somehow he'd magically get smarter as the years went by. I could have told her it didn't work that way, how once you're altogether dim the light very rarely gets any brighter no matter what, but she never bothered to ask.
"How is Joan?" I asked. I couldn't help myself, because, damn it, I was curious. It wasn't like I was burning up with a desire to know all about her and Tommy that much, but more like I was running a scientific experiment to see if what I'd assumed so long ago had actually come true, if Joan had finally discovered what a moron Tommy was or if she was just as stupid as he was and they'd gone on and lived happily ever after relying on their physical appearances to get them by. "I guess the two of you have kids and everything?"
"Shoot," he said, looking down at his calculator like he wasn't sure if it was working or not, "me and Joan have been divorced more than twenty years. We never had any kids. I thought everybody knew that."
"I didn't. I don't keep up with anybody from school much."
"I got two kids from my second marriage, but Joan and I never had any. I got divorced again ten years ago, so I'm on my own now. But yeah, I remember how me and Joan splitting up was such big news at the ten-year reunion, like nobody could believe something like that could happen, since we'd been together since tenth grade. I finally left early that night because I got real damn tired of everybody asking me about it. Everybody wanted to know what happened, why we weren't still together. We just got to where we didn't get along with each other. We both wanted to be with other people. How the hell was I supposed to explain that?"
I didn't press the issue any further, didn't let him know how anybody I knew from back then probably didn't give a damn one way or another about Joan or him either then or now. I just kept silent and let him dive back into his estimate without us discussing the past. I don't know if I was being petty or small or what exactly I was feeling, but I already knew I wasn't going to be using Tommy Tatum and Forever Arbor to solve my tree problem, no matter how good this estimate was or how fast his sorry company could get the job done. I didn't care the first thing about Auld Land Syne or school spirit or old acquaintance or any of that stuff. I kind of hate to admit that after all these years that maybe I'm still a little pissed and upset about some pretty girl, Joan, from a page back in ancient history, choosing a Neanderthal like Tommy Tatum over me, so it could be I'm looking for some kind of justification or something, some measure of revenge for how I'd been wronged all those decades ago. It probably comes down to the fact I don't feel much like writing out a check to Tommy Tatum or his half-ass company and signing my name to it. Maybe I'd rather pay some stranger to do the job so I won't have to one more frigging time go over what a loser I was in high school and how insignificant my life was back then, how the number one thought in my mind those days was that everyone was better than me and nothing wonderful was ever going to come my way.
In that old life I was always thinking I was sorry and ugly and worthless. I'm not crazy about revisiting that scene again.
"Here you go," I said, and handed my estimate to Stan. For a minute I waited for him to say something after he looked at the quote I'd given him, but then I realized he wasn't going to tell me yay or nay right then, because he barely even glanced at the paper. I guessed he was going to call someone else and get another quote and compare the two and see who was the cheapest, but I thought he might at least say something one way or the other.
"Thanks,' he finally said, like it was killing him to open his mouth. "I'll let you know something pretty soon."
Maybe he was wanting me to drop the price right there on the spot, or maybe throw in something extra as a bonus or something like that, but I didn't feel like haggling with him. I just wanted all of a sudden to get the hell out of there and go back to the house. I had a couple of small jobs already lined up, so that was okay. I did hate missing out on a good-paying job because times were a little tight, and I was starting to hurt a little because I was barely breaking even these days, and if things kept up the way they were going I was going to have to let a couple of the guys go, but I still didn't want to beg this dude for a goddamn thing; I just wanted to go. It was pretty obvious that Stan or Steve or whoever in the hell he was and me didn't have anything more to talk about.
I get in the car, and for a minute the ignition acts like it's not going to turn over. I realize I've left the headlights on the entire time I've been here, and the battery, which is getting pretty damn old, is weak as hell and has about had it, but finally the starter fires up, and I turn around in the drive and hang a left on the street, feeling relieved as hell I didn't have to ask Stan or Steve to boost me off. I know going up the road I'm never going to hear from him about his goddamn trees, which, even if I do need the money, is fine by me. It's like if I ever see the son of a bitch again, it'll be too fucking soon. It's funny I feel this way just out of the blue, like I'm mad as hell over practically nothing.
I watch Tommy drive away in his flimsy-ass convertible and notice how one of his headlights isn't working, and how, also, the front bumper of the piece of shit he's driving seems to be hanging on to the frame by a thread. I wait until he disappears up the road and then go back inside to rustle up some lunch and look for somebody else to call about the trees.
My wife is in the shower, so I don't have to explain why I'm not hiring Tommy Tatum and Forever Arbor. She doesn't know the first thing about high school or Joan and Tommy or any of that stuff that went on back then. I don't talk to her about that those days much. I don't really feel like going into it this time either. She'd just think I was being petty about things again, the way she says I get sometimes, holding grudges or judging people about stuff that should be water under the bridge already, but that's not it really, and I don't have the words or the inclination to try and explain it. It's just better to call somebody else.
It's really not that big of a deal. It's not like anything that went on so long ago is that important. The planet's been spinning since then and isn't going to stop now. I learned a long time ago that there's no standing still when things come at you the wrong way, and the best thing to do is just learn from it and move on. I don't want to go to that place again where I waste a lot of time thinking about Tommy and Joan being together and how I was so much smarter and better than he was and nobody could see it. That's just another one of those things I've wasted time doing a thousand and one times already.
I don't think Tommy's estimate was all that good anyway. You'd think, because he knew me, he could have done better than that. Anyway, whatever.