A Red Tree
Photographs by Adrienne Pike Adelphia
Story by Eric M. Martin
You asked me in late summer.
The last firefly was long gone. I think it was a week after we had a little party where we used the left over sparklers. We weren’t doing anything again until the holidays, I mean, we had no plans. No more camping. No more barbeques. The sparklers were the last fizz on the summer champagne or whatever.
Why would I want to sit in a boat for hours and put nasty worms onto hooks just to catch something I’m going to throw back? I just don’t get it.
“We don’t have to use a boat,” you said. “We can fish from the promenade.”
“There’s a little, like, micro-dock behind every cabin. We can take the dog and you and me can go sit on the promenade and do some relaxing fishing.”
“Don’t call her the dog” I said. “When did you want to go?”
“Soon. It’ll be too cold before too long. I think we should make a reservation for one of these cabins and go in a few weeks.”
Then you showed me pictures of the place on their website. With such an empty autumn staring us in the face I thought we might as well.
When we got there, the cabin was not at all what it looked like in the pictures. It looked like something out of “The Three Little Pigs”, one of the houses that couldn’t stand up to the wolf.
When I said that and said, “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and…,” you started to get angry. The skin around your eyes gets red when you’re mad, like you’ve just been crying. It makes your brown eyes look black.
I made up my mind for the thousandth time that this was not how things were going to be for me.
Then we went in. Inside the place was actually nice. Everything was clean. It was a whole different cabin on the inside.
“I told you,” you said.
“Yep,” I said, “You did.”
A bag of nuts and dried fruit was wrapped up nicely in clear plastic with a corny, festive bow on top sitting on the coffee table in front of the new-looking couch.
You went straight through to the kitchen and the back door and went straight out onto the patio. I followed you and you pointed to the micro-dock or whatever you called it. The lake was still and clean-looking too, about the size of a football field or two.
A small dock went from the patio where we were standing into the beginning of the lake.
“See? We don’t even need a boat.”
The little dock had a row of quaint little seats on it that made me want to drink all day. The idea was just one of those flashes you get – you know the kind I got. Sometimes I still get those flashes; that’s why I went back to the cabin this summer when I was passing through the area. That’s why I’m writing you now.
“Let’s unpack,” I said.
And you agreed.
It didn’t take long. As the sun started to set we took our drinks onto the little dock and sat looking out at the water.
That was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. I have to thank you for that.
You volunteered to go get us new drinks from the cabin and I waited for you. You came back singing the one line you knew from that song your dad used to sing. “There is a house in New Orleans…” You used to sing that one line over and over as a joke. You told me your dad used to sing it around the house in a fake, basso voice and I smiled every time you sang it.
Until that day. I watched you coming down the steps of the patio to the little dock looking worried and singing that song and I remembered you didn’t like your dad. You blamed him for making you choose between him and your mom when they split and she moved to Wisconsin.
That’s why you sang the song, as a kind of revenge. To make fun of him. And I laughed with you. But later you didn’t sing it because of him at all. You sang that one line for yourself, as a kind of refrain,a mantra, which I didn’t mind. Not exactly.
Here’s the thing. This is what I wanted to tell you. When you came out singing that song looking worried, I thought again that this was not how it was going to be for me.
You must have known I’d say no.
It was over before you asked. I know you think it was because of the song. At the time I couldn’t explain that it wasn’t the song, but you wanted that to be it, because then it wouldn’t be your fault. It would be your dad’s fault, again.
It wasn’t the song and it wasn’t your dad. It was the worry that you put into that one line, “There is a house in New Orleans.”
The lake was calm and a breeze was blowing into my face when I looked away, over the water. One tree on the edge of the lake had brownish red leaves already. All the other trees were green and vibrant. There was something in this moment that I wanted to keep, something I didn’t want to end.
“Haley?” you said. “I want to ask you something.”
You put our drinks down on the planks of the dock and you got down on one knee.
“Haley, will you marry me?”
I hesitated and looked into your eyes and kept myself from turning to look at the red tree. I didn’t want to say no, because you’d probably lose it, get angry, and we still had two days at the cabin. Those two days flashed full of nightmare in my mind and the thought came back to me: This is not how it is going to be for me.
“No, Tommy. I don’t think I can.”