Ms. Wellington's Oak Tree (Short Story #3)Adam Wasserman
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Grey Life
Ms. Wellington's Oak Tree
The Politics of Consumption
Bringing Down the House
Gyges the Terrible
THE BUNKER SERIES
Thank You For Your Cooperation
Your Call Is Important To Us
Can I Be Of Some Assistance
Ms. Wellington's Oak Tree
this quirky little love story
originally appeared in the collection
Ms. Wellington's Oak Tree
Second Edition, April 2017
Copyright 2006 by Adam Wasserman
All rights reserved
The oak tree in Ms. Wellington's front lawn was far older than the town where she grew up. Schoolchildren would come from miles around to climb it, and – much to her chagrin – their visits were heralded by a great deal of shouting. For the oak tree in Ms. Wellington's front yard was as famous in the surrounding communities as the battle of Lexington, which had taken place not far away. At a distance the brown bark could be mistaken for fur and the leaves hair, and there was a great knot that had the features of a benevolent and animal-like face. The sprawling branches and gnarled, obstinate trunk, resplendent with footholds, were irresistible to any passing child. The lowest limbs of the tree swooped quite close to the ground, and they beckoned.
Ms. Wellington was not fond of the children who maliciously (or so she believed) disturbed her afternoon naps with their baying and their playing. When she was younger she would chase them away with a hickory stick, and when her eyes were still good she could even identify the perpetrators and complain to their parents. But they never took her seriously, and the children always came back. It was an endless war that Ms. Wellington had no chance of winning, but she fought on as a matter of principle. Ms. Wellington was entirely a woman of principle.
After a time, though, and after her wits had begun to play tricks on her, Ms. Wellington lost track of the hickory stick. A deepening rheumatism, too, made running impossible, and the old woman was eventually consigned to spending her afternoons sipping tea on her porch, guarding the oak tree from the devices of small children. They would pass on the road beyond the tidy, brown fence, and whenever one would appear she would remark very calmly that the tree was certainly not meant for climbing, and that if one wanted to climb trees there were plenty down by Mr. Donovan's house. Of course, there was no Mr. Donovan in the town, and if the child were old enough and brave enough he might even have answered her. 'It's not your tree, lady.' Such talk infuriated her, because it certainly was her tree. At which point she would stand up and vigorously lecture the wayward youth on the virtue of respect.
'Watch out!' she could remember hearing them say. 'Watch out for the bitter old hag on Maple Street.' There were several old ladies on Maple Street, of course, but she knew they meant her.
One fine day in the middle of summer when the children were on school vacation, Ms. Wellington sat down for a tepid cup of tea and noticed that her cat had escaped the porch. Her calls went unanswered, and so with an irritated sigh she put down her tea and went into the house. Of course, the cat wasn't there either, and leaning wearily upon the kitchen counter she wondered where she had seen it last.
Outside, the wind blew and ruffled the leaves of her beloved oak. A small, plump child dressed far too warmly approached from the lane, carefully studying the porch and its environs. The old hag seemed to have disappeared. A thin boy with a short stock of red hair peeked out from behind a bush across the lane and urged his younger brother on. The plump child rambled through the gate into the yard and, with scarcely concealed squeals of delight, approached the tree. Clasping the trunk with thick arms, he looked up. Much to the surprise of his brother he emitted a startled gasp and blanched. And then he was off, running back the way he had come, and now down the lane without waiting. The thin boy hesitated only a moment in his place of concealment before following.
Inside the house, Ms. Wellington came to the conclusion that she hadn't seen the cat since she had risen that morning. She wasn't exactly sure what time it had been, but most certainly near dawn, because the last time she had slept past six o'clock was nineteen seventy-eight. Which led her to the conclusion that the cat had been outside since six o'clock in the morning, running free and doing God only knows what (but certainly not that, because Ms. Wellington had taken liberties with her ovaries), and doing it God only knows how far away.
Outside, now, and shuffling through the yard. The treetops on the horizon stroked the sky, and a light wind touched her face. She made a movement with her hand as if to brush it away. Leaden steps led her aimlessly through the yard, eyes glancing this way and that, and occasionally she would call out the cat's name.
At one point she found herself in the shade of the oak tree and stopped to spare herself a moment of the sun's heat. She wished she had something with which to fan herself.
'I think, miss, that this is your cat.'
The voice startled her because it seemed to have come from nowhere. But of course it had come from somewhere, and realizing that it had been from above she leaned back (a stiff, awkward movement which caused her a little pain) and cocked her head.
A thin old man with wispy, white hair and spotted overalls was looking back at her from a higher branch, her cat sitting prettily in his lap and purring at the attention with which he lavished it. The look on his face was curious, like a small child's, and expectant.
Ms. Wellington was far from amused. She put her hands to her hips, and, twisting her body as if to gather stature, sent a riveting finger through the air, jabbing it in his direction, which was up. 'Mr. Edwards!' She pronounced the words like an accusation. 'The butcher!'
'So I am. And you are Ms. Edna Wellington. Every week two pounds of chicken and a ham.' The cat lifted its head lazily and looked down at its mistress.
'What are you doing with my cat?'
'He was in the tree.'
'Let it down from there at once!'
'If I could I would have, but it's why I'm up here in the first place.'
'Did you see the sign on the front?'
'Why, yes, but you –'
'What does it say?'
The old man smiled wanly. 'I don't believe I remember.'
It irritated her to see the cat enjoying itself so much in the butcher's lap. 'Come down here at once,' she demanded of the animal. The cat yawned. Mr. Edwards laughed gaily.
Ms. Wellington coolly returned her attention to the man in her tree. 'I fail, Mr. Edwards, to see what is so amusing. If you find that you are compelled by the sudden urge to climb trees, then I suggest you do it elsewhere. Rutherford Donovan has a fine place down the road and a whole lot full of trees.'
'Perhaps I should remind you, miss, that Rutherford died four years ago, and his son sold the house to a young couple from Mystic.'
'Mr. Edwards.' Ms. Wellington's voice had attained a hint of steel, and she tried to impart her words with the firm sense of authority she had once used with her students. 'Get out of my tree immediately or I shall call the police.'
Mr. Edwards paused only a moment before he answered. 'But don't you that see I can't. It's much easier climbing into a tree than down from it. At least, it is when one is dizzied by height.'
Ms. Wellington stomped her foot in frustration. 'Well I don't care how you manage it, but come down here at once! And bring me my cat safe and sound. I'll be sitting on the porch.'
Ms. Wellington did not answer. She walked away.
For two days, Mr. Edwards sat up in Ms. Wellington's tree. Now, it is hardly possible to expect that the man slept up there, and considering the fact that he exhibited no signs of discomfort we can conjecture that he was not afraid of heights at all. As a matter of fact, Mr. Edwards climbed down from the tree every evening after Ms. Wellington retired and was back up on that lofty branch sometime around dawn. Ms. Wellington, for her part, was not a stupid woman, and we can also expect that after the first night she spotted Mr. Edwards descending, or that she rose a half-hour earlier simply to watch from a window as Mr. Edwards snuck into her yard and scuttled up the oak tree. There was something exhilarating in the trouble that he took in the climbing, for although he was a limber old man he was still an old man. But as much as she disapproved of his manners she still enjoyed the company, and so she went along with the charade.
For two days, Ms. Wellington brought food and tea to Mr. Edwards and her cat. Those afternoons were spent not on the porch but sitting rather under the boughs of her great oak tree and its rusty captive. A tired lawn chair found its way by the trunk, and a small, fold-up table on which she could rest her cup of tea and a plate of cookies. Occasionally, she'd ask Mr. Edwards if he wanted one. He'd always answer yes, and she'd toss one to him, but never so that he
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