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Issue 73, July-September  2015
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4Learn more...
The Sycamore Tree
by Lawrence Dunning
followed by Q&A
The funeral would be as short, simple, and uncluttered as a minister could decently make it, Roger decided--there were really no one else's wishes to consider in the matter. What minister, though? What church, what religion should he call upon in his hour of need? One, certainly, that wouldn't speak of an "hour of need" as though it were the same as an hour of tennis or an hour of sex--not that he had ever had one entire, uninterrupted hour of sex in his life, at least not that he could remember.

Barely noticing the midday traffic darting around him, he concentrated on the problem. The Unitarian minister, a Mr. Barrows, was the only clergyman he knew--a trifle cold, perhaps, a trifle inhuman, but did it really matter? Janet wouldn't know, and probably wouldn't have cared in any case. He felt sure that if she had been told truthfully that the malignancy growing deep inside her body was irreversible, she would have asked that it be kept as simple as possible at the end, if only to make things easier on him. She was, and always had been, thoughtful of others. 

He sighed heavily, feeling suddenly old at forty-seven. Where had it begun, this primitive superstition about observing the wishes of the dying after they were dead and presumably couldn't care less? Guilt aside, he had acknowledged a growing sense of relief as, day after silent day during these last awful weeks in the hospital, Janet had asked for nothing. No one had told her the exact truth about her condition ("Heavy sedation--that's the trick in these terminal cases," Dr. Stone had told him bluntly), but Roger felt certain she had known all along, had even kept a bitter laugh hidden inside herself for the constant stream of gentle lies. Still, he suspected that if she had asked to have her ashes scattered from a dinghy in the Bay of Naples or delivered in a sealed mason jar to the Dalai Lama, he would somehow have tried to comply with her request.

There had not been time, yet, for him to examine his emotions closely, except to know that she had been too young to die--thirty-nine was way too young for anyone to die. He had read enough bad novels and seen enough television to feel vaguely familiar with the tight little melodrama of the specialist who, amid sterile surroundings, delivers the ultimate, abandon-all-hope pronouncement to the family. But it hadn't happened that way, and so far he had not felt a desire to burst into tears. Was that normal? Abnormal? There was, after all, such a lot to consider--a man's wife of fourteen years was pulled suddenly and permanently from his life and there was no way to think about that rationally. 

Conscious of his strangle-hold on the steering wheel, Roger flexed his fingers and rubbed ineffectively at the ache behind his eyes. Maybe he shouldn't be driving. His vision had blurred more with each mile from the mid-city hospital, and he had lost all sense of time. He could remember the approach to the bridge and beyond that the freeway to their suburb, but now he was relying on habit alone to guide the car. The concrete lanes stretched before him endlessly, curving gently here and there but requiring almost no pressure against the steering wheel. It was an elegant Lexus SUV-- Janet's SUV. A far cry from the tiny restored MG he ordinarily drove to his job downtown, a car he loved with a passion some men, he supposed, reserved for their wives. With no sense of reality he wondered whether new seat covers for the Lexus would bring a better price when he sold it, and was instantly ashamed of himself for even thinking about something like that.

His eyes involuntarily closed for a second or two. How peaceful and dark it was with the world shut out! It was the first time he had ever considered the possibility of death as relief rather than tragedy. His thoughts picked at a morbid tableau of Janet lying still and pale on the hospital bed, her eyes locked shut by too many massive injections of too many useless drugs. She had lost weight, of course, and her face--puffy, shapeless, dough-colored--was not at all like that of the pretty young woman he had married. Her hair had been long and silky then, and he could still remember the feel of it between his fingers in those first good years. But in the hospital no effort had been made to comb it (what in the name of God did special nurses do for their two hundred and fifty dollars every eight hours?) and the soft black strands had become matted and encrusted and ugly, moving damply against the white of her pillow like writhing, angry snakes. How many Medusas, he wondered, did the average doctor see during a day's rounds?

The freeway signs were getting farther apart now. Roger thought he remembered passing the exit before his but he couldn't be sure. It didn't seem right that a man's memory should leave him at such a bad time.

Impulsively he reached up and pulled the rear-view mirror askew so that it reflected his own face. His eyes looked tired and slightly bloodshot, but that was all. Well, there would be time later for tears, probably nothing but time for a while. That was the worst of it, he had heard or read somewhere--the quiet in the house, the knowledge that even if you didn't feel like talking there would be no one around in case you changed your mind.

For the first time in days he thought about Little Jan and Richie, who had been staying with his parents on the other side of town since the day Janet had entered the hospital the final time. The children had known it was bad, but not how bad, and in any case were probably too young to understand fully the concept of death. Nevertheless, they had to be told, and he was the one to tell them.

He plucked the cell phone from its holder and began to dial, but then replaced it. Later, he thought. There would be time later. Just now it was too much, he was too close to the disinfectant smell of the hospital and that terrible moment when, after she had stopped breathing and they had ushered him out of the room, he had accidentally seen them cover her face with a sheet.

He had never been a very attentive father, God knows. What would happen to the children now, without a mother? His parents were no longer physically strong enough to deal with the growing pains of two spoiled youngsters, and Janet's parents were no longer living. The idea that a seven-year-old and a four-year-old might have to live with him, alone, was more than frightening. He wouldn't know how to begin.

And there was Susan to contend with, the woman he had been seeing in the city for some time. He wondered whether he should have confessed his infidelity to Janet in the hospital and asked for her forgiveness, but that might have simply made things worse. He would have to call Susan eventually, but not now, not now...

Too tired to wrestle now with any other problems, he scratched absently at his chin with its several-days' growth of rough beard, while with the other hand he continued to guide the Lexus familiarly between the low stone walls bordering the road.

It was late afternoon when he pulled into the driveway of the neat two-story Colonial on their quiet street. Moments before, the sun had dipped behind other houses, though its reflected rays still permeated the air and coated whatever they touched with a warm red-orange glow. It was a quality of light he remembered from other years in the Indian summer days of late September, but never as early as this, never in March. The tree in front--the sycamore they had lovingly planted almost before they had moved in the furniture--was still bare from the long winter and wouldn't begin to bud for at least another month. He opened the car door and sniffed the chill air for some sign of a spring-like reawakening, but there was none.

He stretched his legs beside the SUV and stood looking at the house, remembering how six years ago they had worried over each detail of it, driving out two and three times a week from the city to watch the progress of its building even before it was much more than a hole in the ground. The house--one thing he and Janet had almost never disagreed on--held, like the sycamore, a special stature among the material artifacts of their marriage. In the first years Janet was almost always there waiting for him in the big, lighted front window, often coming outside to meet him as he drove up. But then, complaining of loneliness, she decided to hire out day care for the babies while she took a clerical job at the telephone company in town. After that she no longer greeted him at the window, he remembered; she had probably been too tired to make the effort.

He took the familiar key from his pocket and inserted it into the front door lock, but before he could turn it the door swung open under the pressure of his hand, throwing him off balance so that he stumbled and almost fell into the entryway. For a moment he stood swaying in the shadows, listening to the pounding of his heart. Stupid, he thought.  What am I afraid of?  He flicked the light on inside and inspected the lock, finding nothing unusual except that the self-locking mechanism had not been released. No one else had a key; the only reasonable explanation was that he had forgotten to lock up whenever it was he had been here last. Glancing out into the darkening street, he slammed the door to, this time making certain it caught.

The rooms were filled with a silence so deep the small sound of a button on his jacket scraping against the doorjamb seemed noisy and out of place. Dazed, he climbed the stairs and wandered through the children's rooms on the upper level, stooping to retrieve a stuffed puppy lying forlornly under a toy-box in one, quietly shutting a closet door on a rack of dainty petticoats and jumpers in the other. In the third bedroom, his and Janet's, one of the two beds was piled high with rumpled blankets, the bottoms to a pair of his pajamas, and various items of soiled clothing. The sight of this confusion of living where there was no real life disgusted him. The house had an aura of disuse, of accumulated dust about it; he would have to get in touch with the maid and persuade her to come make it right.

There would probably be people coming in after the funeral to offer their condolences--they always did that, didn't they? No matter how hypocritical they might seem or how unwelcome from the point of view of the bereaved. But who would come? Janet had had no relatives of her own, and though she had always been cordial enough toward the other women in the neighborhood, they had apparently remained acquaintances rather than friends. At one time she had belonged to a garden club in town, but he couldn't imagine its female members would bother coming by to see a husband they knew only through gossip, and if they did it would be torture for him. He wished he could simply close the house right now and find a temporary place closer to downtown, closer to the law office where he worked.

A throbbing ache pounded at his forehead. Aimlessly he wandered back downstairs to the living area. In the teakwood cabinet in the dining room he discovered an ounce or two of bourbon in a heavy cut-glass decanter Janet had given him one Christmas. He emptied the liquor into a glass and stood for a moment eyeing the decanter. If it had been her idea to make up for the long-planned trip to Germany, it hadn't worked. After months of looking at maps and talking to travel agents in the city, their plans for a European vacation had all drowned in a whirlpool of doctor bills and lawsuits when Janet, driving home more than a little drunk after some party to which he had not gone, had crashed head-on into another car. He had still thought they might make the trip after Janet recovered, but then the first baby had come, and after that their lives had never seemed organized enough to permit them more than an occasional dull weekend at some overpriced guest cottage at the lake. Certainly it was unfair to blame her entirely for forcing their marriage into its unexciting routine, but he had never quite been able to forget about the Europe he had missed and the reason he had missed it.

He swallowed the last few drops from the glass and set it down on the dusty cover of the small grand piano he had bought one year for Janet. He had thought she would be pleased, but though she played reasonably well, after the newness had worn off it had sat month after month untouched by anyone--another of those wasted gestures so prevalent in their marriage.

A sudden flash of light caught his eye, a reflection from a tinted photograph of the two of them, much younger, hugging each other and laughing hysterically into the camera. How pretty she looks, he thought, how very different from the hospital...

It had to have been fifteen years ago. Jud Sanders had snapped the picture with a cheap throwaway camera. On some earlier spring day, Jud, Roger's former college fraternity brother, had casually introduced him to Janet, a pretty girl years younger than either of them. She had been Jud's girl first, and for a while this bothered Roger. But the three of them became close, sometimes with one of Jud's many young models and stewardesses tagging along and sometimes not. It might have gone on like that forever, but one day two years after he and Janet were married he came home from the office to find her sobbing, a crumpled newspaper clipping in her hand. Jud had been sailboating off the eastern end of Long Island, a squall had come up, the boat had capsized. The Coast Guard later determined that Jud and a girl almost young enough to be his daughter had presumably drowned, though their bodies were never recovered.

Roger remembered reading the clipping over and over, unwilling to believe the devastating news. It was only later, when he realized his own powerful sense of loss was at least equaled by Janet's, that he began to feel certain there had been much more than friendship between his wife and Jud. For how long, or how recently, he could not know. But one night long after the accident, in a voice rich with love and fear, Janet had called out Jud's name over and over in her sleep until Roger had had to close his ears and his mind, pretending it was only the wind billowing the bedroom curtains and not some treacherous shadow from the past.

Wearied by the memories of two deaths, he shook his head and replaced the photograph on the mantel. As he turned away he noticed a loose dust jacket on the floor that must have fallen off one of the books in the bookcase. Absently he picked it up and scanned the shelves, aware once again of how many really good books he had managed to collect. The huge bookcase, which he had spent most of one winter building into the wall beside the fireplace, was now packed so tightly with every size and kind of literary product that here and there books were even piled across the tops of others in happy disarray. Eventually he located the uncovered volume and replaced its jacket. An inscription was penned in tiny, cramped letters on the flyleaf: "To my Honey with all my love, Janet--Christmas 2003." It happened to be a collection of Hemingway short stories, that having been the extent of her knowledge of what was and was not great literature; her own taste had run more to historical romances. He stared at the inscription and its term of endearment. The first few years of their marriage they had indeed called each other "Honey," but gradually Janet had slipped into the habit of calling him "Roger" as though she had always done so. The difference eventually had seemed unimportant.

He replaced the book carefully with the others now, making a mental note that sometime soon he should sort through them and make a donation to one of the charities that were forever calling.

The silence in the house was affecting his nerves. In search of a sound outside himself, his own breathing, he scanned the titles of the CDs stored in racks beside the stereo cabinet. He came to the Beethoven violin concerto, an old friend. It was not the sort of thing Janet had liked--"Too morbid," she had wrongly said about it. Feeling almost guilty, he settled the CD carefully into its cradle. As the first clean strokes of the violinist's bow cut through the room, he went to the liquor cabinet, poured a large amount of brandy into a snifter, and carried it back to the massive chair beside the bookcase. Sinking deep into the leather, he stretched his legs out straight and permitted Perlman's superb violin to wash against the ragged edges of his mind.

There were no doubt terribly important arrangements he should be making, but he couldn't, not just now. He picked up the cordless telephone and stared at the dial, all those letters and symbols, trying to remember his parents' number. After the third ring his mother answered.

"How are you, son? Where are you calling from?"

"Home. I thought maybe I should tell the children...something. I don't know, there don't seem to be any very good words for it."

"Of course not, dear, there never are. The children are already in bed, though. If it's any comfort to you, your father and I made a kind of preliminary effort to explain what happened. Little Jan seemed very grown-up about it, just nodded her head as though she'd known all along."

"And Richie?"

"I think he's maybe too young. Oh, we tried to tell him, but then he asked us if she'd be at home when he gets back there."

"What did you say?"

"Your father told him that his mother was on a long, long trip and probably wouldn't be home for a long while. Poor little Richie looked so sad. But what can you do?"

"That's right, Mom, there's nothing to be done. I'll try to call them tomorrow, maybe drive up there. I just don't think I can handle having them here right now."

"Of course, we understand. Is there anything we can do?"

"No, no--I don't know, I can't think of anything right now. I can't think, period."

"Poor dear. Try to get some rest. You probably haven't slept in days."

"All right, Mom. Tell Pop hello."

He hung up, wondering whether they'd done the right thing, that business about Janet's being on a long trip. Jesus, you come back from a trip, long or not. There would certainly be some explaining to do, some backtracking. Who knew? Maybe they'd never trust him or their grandparents again.

He sipped the brandy and gazed at the wall opposite his chair. It was covered almost completely by a somber oil portrait in blues and greens of a thin young girl standing in a doorway. The painting (really very good, he had been told by more than one guest whose opinion he trusted) had been a gift from the artist, Sally Ransome--a beautiful, tormented girl he had known during his bachelor days. She had proved to be an insatiable lover as well as an acclaimed artist; once, to comfort each other, they had even talked of marriage. But then she had begun to disappear, erratically, almost by degrees, into the seams of the city, the artists’ lofts that had sprung up here and there, until one day she had slipped quietly out of his life forever. He had spent several frantic weeks checking with her friends, the police, the supers of most of the rooming houses and apartments south of Fourteenth Street. But no one knew where she might have gone. She had simply vanished, leaving behind nothing of herself but the oversize painting she had given him for his birthday.

Much later, when he and Janet were discussing their approaching marriage, he had insisted that they find an apartment with one wall large enough to gracefully accept the portrait. It was apparent from the first that Janet detested the idea of his bringing it or, rather, pushing it into their married life, but he had held firm. Gradually he could even believe that Janet rather liked its dominating presence in, successively, two apartments and this overcivilized box in the suburbs. He realized now that it had been several years since he had really looked at the painting or felt again a jolting desire for the girl in the doorway who had Sally's own dark, haunted eyes.

The Beethoven concerto ended abruptly, and with a sharp click the machine cut itself off, once again drawing a shroud of deep silence over the room. A few feet away something creaked in one of the walls and he stared at the sound. My God, he thought, am I an old woman already, alone and frightened in my own house?

No, that couldn't be true. All his life he had known what a sensual privilege solitude was, aloneness, the freedom to do whatever one wanted whenever one wanted without the need for justification to anyone. No need to invent plausible excuses for having more than one drink after work, or sitting up half the night to finish a book, or turning the volume on the stereo as high as it would go for the sheer joy of sound. Janet had never understood that part of him--perhaps no wife could be expected to. It had led not so much to arguments--though there had been enough of those--but more to a daily coping with the realization that their marriage, which ought to have been something grand and joyous, was neither.

Sipping the brandy, he settled deeper into the soft chair and closed his eyelids over the parched tissue behind them. An indefinite pain tapped annoyingly at the large tendon in his neck. When he realized the telephone was ringing, he opened his eyes but continued to sit very still, frowning at the ill-mannered persistence of the caller. Finally, cursing mechanically under his breath, he picked up the receiver.

"Roger, is that you? Can you talk?"

He hesitated before answering. Susan's familiar voice sounded harsh now, almost triumphant.

"What is it you want, Susan?"

"I was afraid I might not be able to reach you. I called the hospital--they told me Janet had passed away earlier today. Roger, I'm so sorry..."

No, you aren't, he thought. "Yes, about noon. Passed right away, that's what she did."

"Roger, are you okay? You sound funny."

"Not funny, Susan. Very unfunny at the moment."

"I think I should take a train up there. You shouldn't be alone tonight, of all nights."

"Don't," he said. "Don't even think about doing that. And please don't call here again. I' you in a few days."

"There's no need to be angry with me. What are you going to do now, Roger?"

"You mean tonight? Tonight I'm going to drink brandy. Tomorrow, I don't know. There's so much to think about, so much to do..."

"I could help you, Roger. You know I could. You've always said how much I mean to you, how much you care for me. I thought we had an understanding."

Roger shook his head at the telephone. "Things have changed, Susan. Janet's dead, our children have no want to be their mother, Susan?"

"Don't do this to me!"

"I didn't think so. Look, Susan, I think we both know playtime's over. Come to think of it, it hasn't really been that much fun lately. I guess I'm not cut out to be the happy adulterer."

"What kind of bullshit is this, Roger? Don't think I'm going to just let this go."

"I'd say you don't have much choice," he said. "I'd say it's already gone."

She was still yelling at him when he hung up the receiver. In a few minutes the telephone rang again, and he let it ring until the answering machine in the kitchen picked it up. He could hear her angry voice far away and he could imagine the words, but in fact it no longer mattered.

Exhausted, he sank back into the chair. He took a sip of the brandy and rolled it along the edge of his tongue, savoring its warm, sweet bite. The girl in the portrait seemed to be staring down at him accusingly, her blue lips forming silent, terrible sounds. He had never noticed before how much she resembled Janet.

The glass in his hand somehow tipped, spreading a dark pool of brandy on the carpet like blood from a wound. He watched the spot grow larger, helpless to stop it or change its course. "My fault, Jan, all my fault," he said aloud, not sure what he meant but in any case knowing it wasn't entirely true.

A short, simple ceremony...

He picked up the phone and dialed his parents' house again. "Pop?" he said when his father, sounding sleepy, answered. "I know it's late. I just wanted to tell you I'll be by in the morning to pick up Richie and Little Jan. They need to be home--here, with me."

"That's fine, son. Come for breakfast, if you like."
"I'll do that."

After hanging up, he saw there was still a bit of brandy in the snifter, but the thought of drinking it now turned his stomach. He rinsed the glass at the kitchen faucet and set it on a small draining towel beside the sink. Only me here now, he thought, no use taking up dishwasher space. Janet would have been appalled.

Weary, nearly asleep on his feet, he turned off the light in the living room but stood for a moment beside the open-draped window, staring at a cold moon through the leafless branches of the sycamore tree. It will leaf out by May and be beautiful once again, he thought, a renewing that Janet would appreciate. He wondered whether she was out there somewhere beyond the moonlight, watching him, reading his thoughts.

Where did the dead go, really?

He pulled the drapes tightly together and plodded off toward bed, bearing his residual guilt–Janet, Susan, his children, all of it-- like an offering to unknown gods.

Among Lawrence Dunning’s published works of fiction are the novels Fallout! and Taking Liberty. A collection of his short stories--Rondo and Fugue for Two Pianos–was published in 2012. The collection included some of his more than 35 individual stories published in literary journals such as The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Carolina Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, and The MacGuffin. Two of his stories were named in the Best American Short Stories annual list of 100 best stories, and three of them have won Colorado Authors’ League awards. He lives in Denver, Colorado.


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: I suppose what surprised me most during the writing of this story was that I wanted to write it at all. My wife had tragically died, and I didn’t have the heart to write about that in any realistic way. But death was obviously on my mind. The story is in no sense factual, autobiographical, or based on reality.

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I’ve ever received, and something I’ve told my students in writing classes, is simply perseverance. Writing is hard. Getting published is even harder. If you think what you’ve written is good, keep sending it out—some editor, somewhere, may like the piece as much as you do and want to publish it.

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I first wanted to write short stories after reading some of Irwin Shaw’s stories, particularly “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” when I lived in New York. I loved The Catcher in the Rye as everyone does, and Salinger’s short stories touched a nerve. I think I’ve read everything John le Carre has ever written. Ditto Don DeLillo. Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, Ogden Nash’s wonderful poems—too many to mention.

Q:Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as café, or in a cave of one’s own?  
A: I am fortunate enough to have a dedicated, messy workroom where I write.