Roger Hart’s stories and essays have appeared in Natural Bridge, The Tampa Review, Passages North, and more than thirty other magazines and journals. His stories have won the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction, the Third Coast Fiction Prize, and the Dogwood Journal Fiction Prize. He recently moved to Montana where he is working on a novel under the supervision of his wife and two very big dogs.
Out on a Limb
by Roger Hart
Chainsaws whine and a tree falls with a ground-shaking thud. Workers in yellow hardhats shove branches into a chipper, the noise drowning out the sounds of cars on a nearby highway. Beyond the trees a bulldozer scrapes away a foot of topsoil from a field of dead corn stalks while the exhaust pipe coughs black fumes into an already cloudy sky. Men with chainsaws advance one tree at a time toward me, a twenty-seven-year-old unemployed man sitting on the fat limb of an old oak, high above what was once the Hocking Canal.
The crew consists of eight, maybe nine, counting the driver of the bulldozer, the guy sitting in a red pickup truck, the ones swinging chainsaws, and the one milling around, making no pretense of working. It’s a hot October afternoon, and their gray shirts are dark with sweat. The air smells of sawdust and diesel.
One of the hardhats spots me, kicks a branch aside, weaves through the trees to the base of my oak, puts a hand against the trunk, and pushes back the hardhat. It’s a woman, a tall, thin woman.
“Hey!” she says. “What are you doing up there?” She takes off her safety glasses and wipes her face with her forearm.
“Hey!” she repeats. “What you doing?”
I want to protest the tree killing. I want to fight back. I pluck an acorn off a branch and clench it in my fist, imagining the satisfying pop it could make on that hardhat.
She peers up at me, squinting. “You have to come down. They’re going to take this one before long.”
“You mean you’re going to kill it,” I say.
She sizes up the other trees. “They’re going to kill it,” she says, patting the trunk as if the tree were a dog. “Come down. You’re not safe up there.”
“Can’t,” I say.
“I’m waiting for someone.”
“Who?” She looks around, checking for other tree huggers.
“No one you know.”
“Who?” she asks again.
“That’s a hell of a place to meet a woman,” she says, glancing back at her buddies. “Have you ever tried a bar?”
“I don’t drink.”
She’s young, maybe late teens, and doesn’t want to lose face with the men attacking the trees.
“Another hour, and this tree…” She raises her arm, points at the sky, and then lets her arm fall to her side.
“I’m not moving,” I say.
She hesitates like she’s looking for something to say. “You’re crazy.”
As she walks away, I toss the acorn, aiming for the hardhat. POP!
She shakes her head and mumbles, but I can’t make out the words over the noise of the bulldozer and the howl of the chainsaws.
The canal no longer holds water. It’s just a long shallow spot that runs for several miles from Carroll, Ohio, to the old brick ovens on the outskirts of Nelsonville. The former towpath, still used by kids riding their dirt bikes, is lined with goldenrod and sumac. The trees on the banks of the canal are changing color. The leaves in this oak are turning brown, and the shagbark hickory, sweet gums, and the birch have turned yellow. A poison ivy vine with bright red leaves outlines the trunk of the ash tree in front of me.
I love this place.
Clouds are building in the west. Cumulonimbus with black bottoms and anvil-shaped tops. If the storm arrives in time, the hardhats will be forced to stop work before they get to my tree. The reprieve may be temporary, but it’s something I hope for. Of course, sitting high in a tree during an approaching thunderstorm is not the smartest thing I’ve done. Still, I’ll wait with the patience of Vladimir and Estragon, a bad example, perhaps, since Godot never showed up.
I pull another acorn off the branch hanging in front of me.
Fourteen years ago, I sat on this limb with Cass, a girl I’d known for only a couple weeks. Two owls perched side by side on the limb of the ash tree in front of us. We thought they were boyfriend and girlfriend, like us.
The oak tree remembers.
No owls are watching today, and the ash tree is dying from emerald ash borer. Soon, it will be cut down, the chainsaws doing in minutes what the beetles take months or years to complete. The entire canal is being bulldozed along with the cornfield on the west side. Trees, wildflowers, squirrels, birds, raccoons, deer, soon will be gone, replaced by a nine-hole golf course, which will be sprayed with 2-4 D, Roundup, neonicotinoids, or organophosphates, poisons linked to human non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Poisons that kill bees. Over a hundred million gallons of water will be sprayed on the course every year.
And the hardhat woman called me crazy.
I’m waiting for Cass to come and sit on the limb next to me. Old times. During the two weeks she lived across the street back when I was thirteen, we played Hearts on her grandparents’ front porch, shot basketball behind Mr. Hoagland’s garage, stayed out late watching shooting stars, and spent mornings sitting on this limb, the remnants of the old Hocking Canal beneath us. We were like subatomic particles that become entangled, always connected even when far apart.
Then she moved to Norfolk, Virginia, with her parents. Then she died.
But I continued to see her again and again, at least once every few months. She appeared at a Cleveland ballgame where we sat on opposite sides of the stadium. I spotted her with my binoculars, and she spotted me with hers. We waved back and forth although we couldn’t find each other after the game. Returning from a trip out west, I stopped at a small diner in Kentucky, and Cass was sitting alone at a table in the corner. We shared a slice of cherry pie. At the large radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, she put her hand on my shoulder and told me to sit down when I was blindsided by a headache. While visiting the very Large Array in New Mexico, we went for a walk in the desert. At the Stanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, we stood at the fence and shared a Milky Way candy bar while we looked down into the open-pit mine. On a Thanksgiving weekend, we passed in the Columbus airport—Cass was leaving, and I was arriving—and we passed again on a Minnesota lake, our canoes going in opposite directions. I saw her while hiking near Old Man’s Cave in the Hocking Hills of southern Ohio, and I rode the Millennium Force rollercoaster with her at Cedar Point. For years after she died, she appeared every time I returned to this tree. We’d sit on this limb, our feet swinging back and forth. I wasn’t imagining, fantasizing, hallucinating, or dreaming. She wasn’t a ghost. I wasn’t seeing someone who looked like Cass. It was Cass. We talked. We laughed. Our encounters were brief, usually lasting no more than a few minutes, the length of a rollercoaster ride, or the time it takes to eat a slice of pie. Here’s another thing, as I got older, so did she. She changed hairstyles, ponytail one time, no ponytail the next. Long hair and then short. Short skirt and then long. Ghosts don’t do that.
How is this possible? I don’t know. Those subatomic particles? Say, take a photon? It’s everywhere until it’s detected. Maybe that’s Cass. Both here and there, two places at once. According to a theory attempting to explain wave collapse in quantum mechanics, there are an infinite number of worlds. Maybe Cass is in another world part of the time and in our world part of the time. And then there is Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive until it is observed. These are just theories, big maybes.
Which brings me back to the tree and the limb I’m sitting on. I haven’t seen Cass for three years. I hoped I’d see her again when I taught at a camp for juvenile delinquents in Minnesota. It didn’t happen. I thought I’d see her when I went to a Cleveland baseball game against the hated Yankees. No luck. I drove to Kentucky, to the small diner where we shared a slice of pie. She wasn’t there although I sat in the corner booth and nursed two slices of cherry pie for hours. She even failed to appear on my previous visit to this limb.
Goose bumps appear on my arms, maybe the breeze, maybe the anticipation of her showing up. This time I’ll put my arm around her shoulder, hang onto her. No more disappearing stuff. No more here and then gone minutes, sometimes seconds, later.
Dry leaves crunch and small twigs snap. Someone is approaching. My hope that it’s Cass is quickly extinguished when the person gets closer and calls my name. My father. He comes to the base of the tree, puts his hands on his hips. “Russ,” he says, shaking his head. “You have to come down.”
“What are you doing here? How did you find me?” I ask.
“Come down,” he says. “A storm is coming.”
“Not yet,” I say, meaning the storm isn’t here yet and I’m not coming down yet.
He takes a step closer to the tree. “I know what you think you’re doing. You need to get help. This isn’t good. It isn’t healthy. You need to see a doctor.”
“How did you know I was here?” I repeat.
“I wanted your help cleaning the rain gutters. Went to your place and you weren’t there. I called your brother, and he said you were probably out here on the canal, sitting in a tree, waiting for your dead girlfriend.” He shakes his head as if it pains him to say it. “So come down. Your mother and I are worried about you. This imaginary stuff has gone on too long. Cass is dead and she’s not going to magically appear on that limb. Larry says there’s medication that can help you.”
Larry, my brother, is a pastor who, it seems, is now practicing medicine. Climbing down would be an admission that seeing Cass has always been a figment of my imagination, that I’m crazy or delusional. “No,” I say. “I’ll come down when I’m ready.”
“I need help cleaning those gutters.”
“Looks like a storm is coming,” I say. “Can’t clean the gutters in a storm, wouldn’t be safe.”
He stares at me like I might change my mind. “You’re not safe up there.”
“Here,” I say, “want an acorn? Grow an oak?” It lands close to his feet.
He kicks the acorn away, shakes his head. “I’ll be back,” he says, making it sound more like a threat than a promise. He turns, marches down the towpath to a spot where he must have parked his car.
My butt bones complain about the hard limb. I don’t remember them hurting when I was thirteen and here with Cass. A gust of wind catches the tree, and the upper limbs sway.
Lightning flashes and I count the seconds until I hear the thunder. Twenty seconds. Four miles away. I was a physics major in college. I know these things. The hardhat sitting in the red pickup honks the horn and yells for everyone to clear out. The bulldozer stops. The chainsaws go quiet, and the hardhats race to their pickups parked on the other side of the field. The woman gets halfway across the field and turns back, runs to the canal, runs up the towpath, and stops beneath my tree.
“You forget something?” I ask.
“You,” she says. “Can I take your picture?” She unslings a small pack and pulls out an expensive looking camera before I can answer.
“Why?” I ask.
“A before and after photo. One before you get hit by lightning and then one after.” She glances over her shoulder at the approaching storm.
“Sure,” I say. “Be my guest.”
“Don’t look at me,” she says. “Look at the storm clouds.”
I obey and she snaps a photo and then another.
“The lightning,” she says. “You need a ride? I’ll give you a lift.”
The offer is tempting. “If I come down you won’t get your after-the-lightning-strikes photo.”
“That was a joke,” she says.
A tree killer with a sense of humor. “This oak has got to be over a hundred years old, and it doesn’t appear to have ever been struck. No lightning scars. You have to cross an open field to your truck. You aren’t safe either.”
She pauses to consider what I’ve just said. “You hungry? I’ve got a candy bar. Half is yours if you come down.”
“Thanks,” I say, surprised that our relationship has taken this odd turn. “But I’m staying. You better get back to your truck before…” There’s another crack of thunder, so I don’t have to finish the sentence.
“Hey,” she says. “She’s not coming, the woman you’re waiting on.” She shakes her head for emphasis. “She’s not coming.”
This woman is beginning to worry me. If lightning strikes her, I’ll feel partially responsible. What is she thinking? “Hope beats eternal and all that,” I say.
She nods like we’ve discovered a profound truth. “Don’t it though.”
But she’s right. The love of my life isn’t coming. I don’t know how I know but I do. I try to think about the last time we met, if she hinted that would be her last appearance. I feel empty and sad and something else I can’t identify. “You go on. I need another minute.”
She tips her hat but lingers near the tree, maybe getting ready for a mad dash across the open field. The other pickups have gone except for a black one that from even this distance looks to be one breakdown from the junkyard.
My father… Yikes! That flash of lightning was close. I count to seven and there’s the crinkle, then a sharp crack followed by a tree-shaking rumble of thunder. Seven seconds, a little more than a mile away. I’m not moving, which may confirm what I was about to say about my father. He thinks I’ve got mental issues. That’s what he’s said ever since he got out of prison, that I have issues. You need to get help, he says. See a doctor. The tree killer said it more bluntly. She called me crazy.
I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke the funny stuff. It’s not magic mushrooms that help me see her. It happens. My father talks to Jesus, a man who hasn’t been seen for two thousand years, but my father doesn’t understand. My brother, a pastor and a married man, is having an affair with my father’s probation officer, and my brother thinks I need help.
Lightning zig zags across the sky followed by more sharp cracks and rolling rumbles. The dark clouds billow upward, churning. If this were a movie, the storm would hint at something supernatural about to happen, the appearance of aliens or a strange force. But this isn’t a movie, and the lightning appears to suggest nothing more than I’m in a bad place.
Oscar, my best friend, likes storms. He’ll often call me when a storm is brewing. Better get over here, he says. We sit on his back porch, high on a hill, and watch them approach from the west. We’ve seen some doozies. Oscar has been fighting non-Hodgkins lymphoma that was probably triggered by his exposure to poison weed killers. Oscar does not think I’m crazy, which means we both may be.
“I can’t leave you up there like that.” The woman’s voice interrupts my thoughts, and I lose my balance. I grab the limb above me just in time. Then, I look below and behind me but don’t see her.
“Here,” she says.
“You’re still here?” I ask.
“Still here,” she says.
I lean back as far as I can, look on the other side of the tree trunk.
“Here,” she repeats. She shakes a small sassafras tree and I spot her.
“Who… What are you doing? Why are you staying here?” I ask.
She laughs. “I’ve never seen anyone hit by lightning. Thought it might be interesting. I wonder if you’ll glow or if you’ll turn into a tall strip of crisp bacon. I want to get a picture of it. What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to go back in time.” There’s a bright flash of lightning and I flinch.
“Not so far.”
“If lightning hits that tree, don’t expect me to catch you when you fall. You’ll be dead before you hit the ground.” She laughs as I try to decide which death would be least painful, lightning or a big fall.
It begins to rain. The leaves offer a little protection but drops get through. She’s getting wet. I expect her to hold her camera bag over her head or to take cover under the ash tree. “It’s going around us,” she says.
The clouds and flashes of lightning appear to be moving north, so she may be onto something. The time between flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder is increasing. Twenty seconds and then thirty. The rain is warm and once I’m wet, it feels good. “I’m going to miss this place,” I say.
She takes a red ribbon from her pack and ties it around the trunk of the tree.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
She steps back, looks at the ribbon and then looks up at me. “Maybe saving the tree.”
I don’t ask.
“So, how long you staying up there?”
“Awhile longer. There’s a nice view.”
“Yeah? Care if I join you?”
“You mean come up?”
She drops her hardhat and safety goggles behind the tree. “Yeah, unless you want the entire tree to yourself.”
“The limbs are wet. Better be careful.”
The woman is tall, long arms and legs, and she climbs the tree effortlessly, like she’s a professional tree climber or a gymnast. I scoot out farther to make room for her, but when she sits on the limb beside me our shoulders and hips touch. Her face is wet with sweat or rain and her hair hangs limp. She smiles in a way that suggests she’s happy to be here in the tree or that she is about to push me off the limb.
She raises her chin in the direction of the towpath. “So, who was the man trying to get you to come down?”
“My father. He says…” I don’t feel like explaining my father’s views about my mental condition. “My father,” I say. There’s a lot of embarrassment packaged in being a twenty-seven-year-old man, high in a tree, visited by your father who thinks you have mental problems.
She nods again.
I try to recover. “So, you said you had a candy bar?”
“I said I’d split it with you if you came down.”
Getting a closer look at her, I judge her to be older than I originally thought. I guess twenty-five, maybe twenty-eight. She has the cockiness of a woman comfortable with herself and ready to tease.
I pull a Milky Way out of my pack hanging on a branch above me. “Ha!” I say, “and I was going to share this with you if you came up.” The candy bar has gone soggy in the heat, and trying to break it in half will only squish it. I hand her the entire candy bar.
She unwraps it and takes a bite. I’m surprised, thought she might have given a polite refusal, said, No, you can have it. I mean, who takes a melted candy bar from a stranger?
She gets chocolate on her fingers, her hands, and on her lips. “It’s good,” she says. Then, grinning like we’re playing a game, she hands the uneaten portion back to me. I take a bite while she wipes her hands on her pants, her face on her sleeve.
“So,” she says, “is a woman going to show up and ask why I’m sitting up here with you?”
I finish the candy bar. Despite its soggy nature, it was good. “No. You were right. She’s not coming. She’s…” Do I dare say it? Will she, like my father, accuse me of being crazy? And if she does, what do I care? “She’s dead.”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“We were entangled. You know, like …” I try to explain but can’t.
She looks at the clouds, the flashes of lightning, which are moving off although the rain continues. She wipes her mouth one more time with the back of her hand. “We’re all entangled,” she says. “All of us. Everyone. Everything.”
Before I can comment, voices approach on the towpath, and there is the slapping of branches. “Russ?” my brother calls out as my father and brother come into view.
My father is mumbling, swearing about the wet branches catching him in the face, clearly annoyed I’m still up in the tree. “Russ!” he says. “Get your ass down here now. You need…”
He and my brother stop, stare up at us. They take another step forward, look at each other, and then back up at us. My father scratches his head. My brother whispers to my father.
“Hello,” my father says.
“Hello,” the woman next to me answers.
“Hello,” I say. “You’re back.”
My father shifts from one foot to the other. “I’m Lenny, Russ’s father,” he says to the woman sitting beside me.
“Larry,” my brother says, raising his hand. “I’m Russ’s brother.”
“Nice to meet you,” she says. “I’m Cass.”
Copyright 2023 by Roger Hart