The Tree Fort

by: Hilary Holladay

A chance encounter arouses ghosts of days bygone…

treefort

I was flying to San Francisco for a professional conference and my seat-mate was going home after a week of consulting in Washington, DC. We established these facts shortly after I sat down in my aisle seat next to him, and that might have been all we ever learned about one another. He had the look of a quiet man with his lined face and gentle smile, and I’m not particularly outgoing with strangers. However, I make an exception with people on planes. I like a little conversation, especially at the beginning, to distract me from the whole ordeal.

It was January, and we talked about the snow we were leaving behind in DC and the anticipated sun and mist in San Francisco. When the plane finished its ascent, I opened the book on my lap and the man dozed for a while. Then the flight attendant came along offering drinks. My seatmate woke just in time to request a ginger ale. I got tomato juice with lemon, something my late husband liked, especially when he was flying. He used to say he found it soothing. I would have a few sips, just enough to keep me from getting dehydrated.

Drinks in hand, the stranger and I turned toward each other and began talking in earnest. When I introduced myself as Helen, he said his name was Daniel. It was quickly established that we were about the same age – his 55 to my 52 – and that he was married and very proud of his family. He told me about his wife Beth, a surgeon, and his three sons, all of whom had gone to the same very fine university where he and Beth had graduated. His youngest was due to finish in the spring. Daniel was trained as a chemical engineer and had worked for the government for a number of years. As a consultant, he traveled frequently to the East Coast to meet with clients.

Daniel was very talkative, but in an engaging way. He wanted to know about the conference I was attending and was very interested in my research on teenagers at risk. I had closed my book and when he saw that it was a Willa Cather novel, he told me how much he loved My Antonia when he was in college. He still remembered the lectures one of his professors, a famous and brilliant woman, had given on Cather’s work. A couple of the professor’s observations came readily to his mind, and they were so interesting I wrote them down in the back of my paperback so I could think about them later.

Our conversation was spirited and enjoyable. I had the sensation I occasionally get with very nice, unassuming, and not at all predatory married men – that is, he was thinking the same thing I was: It could have been us; we could have married – maybe still could! – and we’d have a great life together. I’m content with my friends and my colleagues and my very pampered Corgi, and I doubt I will ever marry again, but it is reassuring to feel that mild attraction, to know the embers of possibility have not totally died out.

When he asked about my work at the institute, I told him I no longer have direct contact with the population that it was is intended to serve. Thirteen years ago, after Mark’s death, I took a few months off. The institute was going through some restructuring, and when I returned, I left my hands-on position and found a niche doing policy research. During the evenings, I earned a graduate degree in Economics and Public Policy and was promoted to Senior Economic Analyst. About nine years ago, I transferred from our New York headquarters to the institute’s office in Washington, DC. My work is abstract but very interesting, and eventually it will help our target population. If I didn’t believe that, I would quit tomorrow.

My new acquaintance listened to all of this with steady attention. When I mentioned the loss of my husband, a pained compassion filled his eyes. Rather than express sympathy, he let me keep talking, and I appreciated that. I hadn’t wanted to get personal. It was just that Mark’s death was part of the story of my career at the institute.

The flight attendant came and collected our cups. Now was the time for us to fall quiet again. Daniel turned and looked out the window at the blue sky and striated clouds. I folded up my tray and was about to start reading when he spoke again.

“There is so much sadness in the world,” he said. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be for children growing up today. They’ve had to live through things that I would never have imagined when I was their age.” He paused. “And they’re under so much pressure. Each of my sons has had at least one classmate or close friend who committed suicide.”

I closed my book and looked at him. He was still smiling slightly and his eyes hung on mine as I answered him. “They don’t realize they have options,” I said. “One bad grade, one crisis, doesn’t mean your life is over. The ones who feel so driven, who feel pressured by their parents or their own expectations, have a hard time realizing that.”

He nodded. “Some of them, the really bright ones, have never failed at anything. And then all of a sudden….”

“All of a sudden, they do. They do fail. They fail an exam or they fail to get into the right school or their girlfriend or boyfriend breaks up with them.”

“Or they face moral dilemmas that go beyond their powers of reasoning.”

“Yes, that too.”

 “And it feels like the world has ended,” Daniel said.

“And yet it hasn’t,” I said. “It’s no reason to end your life.”

We both fell silent. I sensed that Daniel had more to say, but I was feeling drowsy. I never sleep much the night before flying, but once I’m in the air and the flight is going well, I like to get some rest. It was a beautiful morning and there was no turbulence and I could feel my eyelids drooping. Still, I was uncomfortably cold and didn’t want to settle for one of the thin little blankets the flight attendants had been passing out earlier. I stood up and retrieved my flannel-lined jacket from the overhead compartment. It was just the layer of warmth I needed so I could sleep for a couple of hours.

But then, once I got settled, Daniel started up again. “I had a very happy childhood,” he said in his soft voice. “I spent a lot of time outdoors. I think that makes a difference.”

I draped the jacket across my lap and then pulled it up to my chin. I was really fading, but I didn’t want to be impolite to this kind and thoughtful man. “Where are you from?” I asked him.

Rather than simply telling me the name of the town where he grew up, he went back a few generations and told me about his maternal great-grandparents, who had immigrated to Minnesota from Italy. His great-grandmother initially stayed behind in Italy while her husband came to the U.S. in search of a good, stable job. Once he found employment at an iron mine in Minnesota, he returned to Italy for his wife and five children. They settled into their new home and the children started attending school and learning English. Within a year, however, the great-grandfather died during a flu epidemic. Daniel’s great-grandmother, who spoke hardly any English, was left to fend for herself. In time, she found a factory job that paid a pittance of a salary. The children all got jobs as soon as they could. Somehow the family got by.

Daniel had much more to tell me. Some people might have found his storytelling irritating, but I was not at all put off. There was something about his soft, earnest voice and that slight smile that I instinctively liked. The only problem was that I was so close to falling asleep. At first I had turned toward him. After a few minutes of this, however, my neck began to ache and I told him I was still listening; I just needed to get more comfortable and maybe close my eyes. He said he understood and didn’t mean to talk my ear off. “No,” I said, “I’m very interested.” Encouraged, he resumed his tale.

Daniel, when he was a very young boy, had visited his great-grandmother’s home in a small Minnesota town. The house was not remarkable in size or design, but the garden in the front yard had stayed with him always. He remembered the bountiful vegetables and the bright flowers growing along the surrounding fence. His great-grandmother had found a way to feed her children even during the worst years right after their father died. She was an excellent cook and the children grew to be strong and athletic.

The most athletic of those children was his grandmother’s oldest brother, Anton. Anton was the best and fastest swimmer in the whole region, perhaps in all of Minnesota at that time, in the 1930s. One summer evening, at a local saloon, a friend bet Anton he couldn’t swim across the Mississippi River and back. Anton bristled and insisted he could, even though, the story went, his friend didn’t really expect him to try. The next morning, Anton set out to prove his point. His friend sat on the riverbank and watched until Anton made it to the other side, and then the friend got bored and went home. Unfortunately, Anton ran into trouble on his return swim and there was no one around to rescue him. He was a very strong swimmer, but the Mississippi was more than his match.

“That river looks placid,” Daniel said, “but not only is it very wide; it’s also very deep in places. There are crosscurrents and vortexes that make it extremely dangerous. You can get pulled down in an instant.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis. “And that’s what happened to Anton. It was a week before his body washed up on shore.”

This was startling and sad news and I turned to look right into Daniel’s hazel eyes. There was a little fleck of yellow in one iris, like gold dust. “That’s terrible,” I said.

“He wasn’t the only one in the family who came to a tragic end,” Daniel continued. “The second oldest after Anton was my great-aunt Marilee. Based on the pictures I’ve seen, she was a real beauty in her youth.”

“What happened to her?” I turned away and closed my eyes again.

The story of Marilee was indeed very sad. At the age of nineteen, she had married a prominent, older man, a successful businessman, and moved into his house at the center of town. Marilee had been very much in love and seemed poised to have lots of children. Her husband was a good man, well respected in the community. Then, less than a year into their marriage, he returned from a business trip and announced he was leaving her and moving to Chicago. There was no explanation, though one had to think there was another woman involved.

“The shock of this abandonment caused her to lose her mind,” Daniel said. “She was never the same after that.”

“Did she go to a hospital?” I asked.

“Yes. She was in the local hospital for a while and then she was institutionalized. The family would go visit her, and occasionally, years later, she would be let out for a weekend. But not very often. She spent the remainder of her life in an old-fashioned insane asylum.”

I murmured an appropriate response. Daniel then began telling me about the next child in the family, and the next after that, but I missed much of these accounts. There was something about a daredevil pilot who performed all over Minnesota and Wisconsin, and a nurse who married a Romanian immigrant with an incurable disease. I wanted to hear every detail, but the lulling drone of the plane’s engines combined with Daniel’s steady voice made it impossible to stay fully awake.

At one point, I must have been repeating, “And then what happened?” in my sleep. A flight attendant, of the brassy blonde variety, leaned over me and said, “He’s gone to the john, hon. He’ll tell you what happened when he gets back.”

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. When Daniel returned, I went off to use the facilities. By now I was fully awake and hungry. I’m too thrifty and particular about what I eat to buy the food they serve on planes, so I had packed a sandwich and a couple of tangerines. Daniel stared meditatively out the window while I ate the sandwich. I hoped he was not miffed at me for sleeping through parts of his story. When I offered him a tangerine, he hesitated at first and then accepted. That seemed to be all he needed to pick up where he left off.

Now, at last, it was time to hear about his grandmother, Rosie. Unlike Marilee she had not gone mad, and unlike the nurse she had not saddled herself with a desperately ill husband. After high school she had married a machinist named Thomas who loved her dearly. They put off having children for a couple of years and saved all the money they could. Then Thomas bought some land along a lake a couple of hours north of Minneapolis. It was not particularly close to the town where they lived, but he knew a good thing when he saw it. Whenever they could spare the time they went out to the lake and together built first one little cabin and then another, and still a third. Thomas knew a lot about carpentry and Rosie was a quick study. Soon she was just as good at building a house as her husband was. After they got the first three cabins built, they began renting two out for the summer and living in the third. With the rent coming in, Rosie no longer needed to work her factory job. She had two baby girls, the younger of whom grew up to be Daniel’s mother.

Rosie and Thomas bought up more land along the lake, hired local boys to help them build more houses, and soon had the income from fifteen or sixteen cabins. In the midst of all this building, they constructed a slightly larger home for themselves, with two bedrooms instead of just one, and a big hospitable front porch.

During the summers, they lived at the lake and during the winter months, they traveled to Arizona, where Thomas was able to work as an itinerant machinist. This pattern continued for years. When Daniel’s mother, Sara, was eighteen, she stayed in Tucson and got a job as a secretary. One day her boss invited her to go on a double blind date. She would be paired off with his best friend, and he would be with his best friend’s roommate’s sister.

The date was a big hit for all involved, except that Sara and her boss ended up falling in love as did the best friend and the roommate’s sister. Each couple got married within the year and served as godparents for the other’s children. Daniel and his older sister, Katie, grew up in Tucson, but spent every summer of their childhood at the lake in Minnesota.

By now Daniel had finished his tangerine. He gathered up the rind and bundled it into the paper towel I had given him. When I offered him a little packet containing a wet napkin, he said, “Thank you very much,” and wiped his fingers slowly and carefully. He had elegant hands, smooth and well manicured. His gold wedding band had a well-worn sheen.

“I loved the lake,” Daniel said. “My sister and I ran a stand on my grandparents’ porch and sold soft drinks and paper cups full of worms for the fishermen. We got to be friends with all the summer kids.

“When I was ten years old, this kid named Tilton – Tilton Xavier – started coming to the lake with his parents. He became the leader of all the boys and we built this fort in a great big oak tree that hung out over the lake. That was our clubhouse. It seemed so high up! Then Katie wanted to join the club, and of course all of us boys said no. But my parents said we weren’t being fair. Tilton decided he would devise a test for membership that would keep my sister out. The test he came up with was, each of us had to jump out of the tree fort onto the ground. Anybody who could do that was a member of the club.

“What we hadn’t counted on was that Katie was so much taller than the rest of us. It didn’t seem like a very big or dangerous leap to her. She climbed up the tree, went out on the edge of the fort, and jumped down without giving it a second thought. The rest of us were really afraid.”

Daniel paused. His smile had vanished.

“Well, did you do it? Did you jump out of the tree?”

“Oh, yes. We all did. Tilton was the last one to go, oddly enough, even though the test was his idea. I think he was the most scared of all.”

I nodded my head but asked no follow-up questions. We had been talking forever, it seemed, or should I say, I had been listening forever. When I got to San Francisco, an old friend of mine would be picking me up and taking me directly to the conference. He would be presenting his research and then I would be presenting mine. After that, I had back-to-back meetings with scholars from Denmark and Italy. There was talk of collaborating on a couple of projects and sharing data, and I needed to be fresh and sharp for the remainder of this very long day. Maybe it was time to shut down the conversation with Daniel. I stretched my legs as best I could in the cramped space and opened my book.

I had read barely a paragraph when Daniel said, “Tilton talked me into destroying the Bat Tree.”

I allowed myself to turn the page.

“Oh, I’m sorry. You’re reading.”

It was tempting to say, I was trying to, but curiosity got the better of me. I closed my book. “What was the Bat Tree?”

Smiling again, Daniel said, “The Bat Tree was this old, rotted tree where all the bats hung out. We used to see them on the dead branches, and Tilton suspected that the whole tree trunk was hollow and full of bats. One day he got me to help him knock it down. We pushed and pulled and finally it started to give. When it toppled over, dozens of bats flew out. We were caught in this cloud of bats! Tilton and I were yelling and screaming and waving our arms trying to push them away.

“A little later, Tilton went back and found this one bat that had been knocked unconscious. Maybe one of us had hit it by accident or it banged against the tree. Anyway he put it in a paper bag and took it back to his family’s cabin. He fed it sugar water and cared for it until it was strong enough to be set free.”

“What did he look like?” I asked, since I’d gotten this far into the story with him.

“Tilton? Oh, I don’t know. He had this thick mat of dark hair and one of his front teeth was chipped. His voice always sounded a little hoarse, like he was just getting over a sore throat or something. He was a very smart kid, always into things.”

“And he was kind,” I said. “He saved that bat.”

“I’m not sure I would call him kind.”

“No?”

“He got me to do something I’ve always regretted.”

I looked straight ahead and said nothing.

“It’s caused me so much shame. To think that I was involved in such cruelty.” He paused and out of the corner of my eye I saw him look down at his hands.

A stillness came over me. I knew I would have to listen to whatever he had to say, but I wasn’t going to ask for it. A few more seconds passed.

“There were these beautiful frogs in the lake. You don’t see them anymore; the environment has changed and they’re completely gone from that lake, maybe gone altogether. Big green frogs with black spots on their backs. We used to catch them and take them up into the tree fort and set them on this really long plank that led down to the lake. They had to use it to get back to the water.”

For an instant I had hope. Maybe that’s all there was to the story.

“Then one day Tilton got me and the other boys to peel the skins off the frogs.” He lifted his fine-boned hands and I saw that they were trembling. “We peeled their skins off and then – then we made them walk the plank.”

I felt the slow curdling sensation inside me that I used to feel in the months – the years – after Mark died. It had been a while, but the sick hopelessness was familiar as ever. I closed my eyes.

“It made me stronger later on,” Daniel continued, his soft voice steady in my ear. “It made it easier for me to say no to terrible things. If somebody wanted me to do something unprincipled, I could say no. I would never do something like that again.”

I opened my eyes and looked at this man beside me. Perspiration glistened on his upper lip, and his eyes were alert and shining. “This is what you’ve been building toward?” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“This whole flight, the whole time we’ve been talking – this is what you wanted to tell me.”

“Sorry?”

“You wanted to tell me about those frogs.”

He put up a hand, as if to apologize or make me stop, I wasn’t sure which. “I’m just telling old stories,” he said. “You got me going. You’re a good listener.”

We had only a couple of hours before the plane landed, and there was no point in asking for another seat assignment when I knew the plane was full. I had to get control of my emotions and not be angry. After all, he said he’d learned from it. He was not like his buddy Tilton. This was a good man. I’d spent the past four hours thinking that about him.

Daniel and I sat in silence and then I fell asleep. When I woke up, he was gazing out the window and after a while I couldn’t resist looking as well.

“Look at that,” he said. “The Sierra Nevadas.”

The mountains appeared very sharp and metallic and forbidding.

“I guess there aren’t any people down there,” I said.

Daniel gave me a quick glance. “There are. I just saw a ski lodge and a road going up to it. There are people living down there, we just can’t see them.”

The monitor in front of me said the temperature outside was minus sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit, and we were nearly thirty thousand feet up in the air. I thought about that as I looked down at the metallic mountains.

“What happened to him?” I said a little louder than I intended.

He knew who I was talking about. “I lost track of him. My mother used to try to find out how he was doing, but for the longest time, no one seemed to know.”

“You never went online to find someone with the name Tilton Xavier?”

“Oh, I found him. I knew he was in New York. I knew he was in finance. I just didn’t know how he was.” He let out a brief, rueful laugh. “I had no interest in talking to him or anything like that.”

“So you’ve never been in touch?”

“Well, he died,” Daniel said.

Somehow I was not entirely surprised. And now, no matter what was to come, I braced myself for it. “What happened to him?”

Daniel shifted in his seat and turned fully toward me. “He died during 9/11 at the World Trade Center.”

“Oh,” I said.

“His name was in the paper and on the news. Later I heard – my mother heard it from one of the people who used to rent a cabin at the lake – I heard he was one of the people who jumped. He jumped from one of those high windows. We heard he was on fire. I don’t know whether that was true.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry,” Daniel said. “I shouldn’t be telling you this while we’re on a plane.”

“That’s okay. I asked. And all of that was a long time ago.” I opened my book and stared down at it.

We sat for a while saying nothing and then the announcement came on about putting your seats and tray tables in their upright and locked positions as the plane started its descent into San Francisco.

Suddenly Daniel put his hand on my arm. “Helen, you said your husband died thirteen years ago. Not….”

I had resolved not to cry, no matter what, but it was so hard not to. “Yes,” I said. “First tower. Seventy-third floor.”

The descent was dramatic now. Then the plane landed smoothly and began speeding along the ground and there was the roar of air against the wing flaps.

Daniel had taken my hand between his own and the warmth of his skin felt good. I instinctively knew he would not say another word to me, and I had no desire to say anything further to him. After the plane came to a stop, he let go of my hand.

I put my unread book in my shoulder bag, slipped on my jacket, and pulled my bag down from the overhead compartment. There was a large, old-fashioned briefcase with brass locks next to my bag, and I knew it had to be Daniel’s. I grabbed the leather handle and swung it down on the seat next to him.

There is always that lag time between when you stand up and when you’re allowed off the plane. I stood there staring straight ahead for a good ten minutes. When the people ahead of me finally started to move, I glanced down at the seat, nervous as always that I might have left something behind. But there was only Daniel and his briefcase.

He was looking out the window again. The briefcase lay on its side and I noted that it had a monogram stitched at the top near the brass locks. The letters jumped out at me: TDX. I looked away and then looked back. Now Daniel had righted the briefcase so I couldn’t see the letters. Had I read them correctly?

I decided not to think about it just then. I had a friend to meet, a paper to give, and two important meetings to go to. I would have the whole night, which promised to be a sleepless one, and the rest of my life to think about those initials.

The next thing I knew, I was being carried along in the flow of exiting passengers. I was saying goodbye to the flight attendant whose smile looked quite genuine and to the pilot who looked very kind. I hurried along to the lower level and stepped outside in the fresh, breezy air. Eric was just pulling up to the curb. What luck.

I’ve known him since grad school, another very gentle man. I see him at these annual conferences, rarely in between. He got out of his car and came around to take my bag and hug me. “Are you okay?” he said, looking me hard in the eye.

“Yes,” I said, and I was not crying. “It’s just that there’s so much sadness in the world, so much pain. Nothing makes sense sometimes.”

“Tell me about it,” Eric said with a little chuckle as he opened the passenger’s door for me. “No, really, tell me about it.”

Hilary Holladay is the author of Tipton (Knox Robinson Publishing), a love story set in Oklahoma and Virginia during WWII. Her biography, Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, is due out in August 2015 from Schaffner Press. She lives in Orange County, Va., and blogs about poetry and the Beats at hilaryholladay.com.

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