Lorraine and Kevin Bibby owned the largest tree in the neighborhood and when it split with a sizzling crack during a wicked summer lightning storm the whole community felt their loss. Mighty, stately, the copper beech had spread its limbs and leaves over the circular drive that lead to Gwendellin, the Bibby’s manse, for the better part of a hundred years. The loss of the towering tree seemed a harbinger of other losses coming in the new flat world.
The Bibby’s acquired Gwendellin before they had kids. They had come across the magnificent but deteriorating mansion on the Internet and been seduced. Gwendellin had something like 30 rooms, uniformly of grand proportion, including an ancient ballroom that the last owners had used for a bastardized version of indoor tennis. The Bibby’s had been looking in the suburbs but the value of buying inside the city limits was too stunning to ignore and so they decided to take on Gwendellin as a project even though their friends thought they were out of their minds.
The restoration of Gwendellin was a monumental undertaking but the Bibby’s were energetic and they took it in stride. And not just the house project, a whole range of projects. They hosted playgroups and the neighborhood social and, once, the Historic House Tour. They served on the PTA and played tennis at the Club. They organized Town Watch and in one of those mysterious feats of urban techno magic they created a hundred-person email list to send security alerts around the neighborhood when an unidentified solicitor was spied walking suspiciously from door to door.
Loraine Bibby – mostly called Lori but occasionally, and fondly, in reference to her chairwomanship of the Friends of the Park, the Lorax – was determinedly blonde. She wore her long hair in a ponytail hanging down the back of her fluffy Patagonia down vest. She carried a plastic bottle of designer water as if it were issued as part of a uniform. She double air kissed on greeting. She made notes to herself on her iPhone when she heard of a new restaurant or orthodontist or a book that could be perfect for book club.
The Bibbys’ accomplishments as young parents were mostly a result of Lori’s energy and capability but some resulted from Lori’s free time; the Lorax had been a commercial banker at a downtown bank for several years before moving to the neighborhood and quitting her job in favor of parenting. She retained an air of busy industry and competence even as her days were spent on the tennis court and in the farmers’ market rather than conference rooms in the city.
For the several years that contractors were working on Gwendellin – as soon as they finished one project they’d start another – Lori had served as a de facto general contractor, setting the project scope and inspecting the work as it proceeded to completion to make sure the project was what they wanted and the price was what was agreed. There were many day-to-day decisions to make and she made them without a lot of naval-gazing. And the result was a thoughtful renovation; Gwendellin had not been as luminous in decades; everybody said so. Such a shame to lose the stately copper beech; Gwendellin looked less dignified without the cover of its mighty spreading branches.
“Kevin” Lori said, “Have you seen what is going on in the driveway? There are a dozen kids out there.”
“They are playing in the beech. It’s a nature thing. It’s fine.”
“It is not a nature thing. I don’t want those kids playing in that tree. Tell them they can’t play there.”
“I tried. They left but were back in an hour. They are making some kind of a fort inside the branches.”
“I don’t even want to know. I told Jenna and Jackie that they can’t play out there.”
“It’s those twins from down the street. They have some friends with them – it’s a regular rat pack.”
“Kevin, can’t you get it cut up?”
“I called Rory but he is up in Boston for the weekend. He will be back in the middle of next week.”
“Somebody will break an arm by then.”
“Yeah. And they’ll probably sue us.”
“Just call a tree service. They can get rid of it. And make sure they get rid of the part of the trunk that is still standing. We don’t need a nine foot stump at the head of our driveway.”
“I will try.”
Kevin Bibby was a ginger. He had a thick-bristled red mustache and were he to don a pith helmet, he’d resemble a British big game hunter from the early part of the last century. He was cursed with a fair and lightly freckled skin that burned easily. He played golf at the Club at least once a weekend and he squeezed in a second round whenever he could. Lori frequently reminded him that he would soon be contracting skin cancer and had convinced him to use an opaque white sunblock paste – the type that comes from a silver squeeze tube – and when he golfed his two big red freckled ears – liberally schmeared with sunblock – stuck out from under his golf hat like ceramic pot handles on a crock pot. He seemed good-natured and friendly but that cheerful demeanor covered a vein of surprisingly bitter political views. He thought there were a lot of freeloaders freeloading on his tax dollars and he did not like that a bit. He despised the sponging that he saw at the national level and could not abide what was happening in the city where people without means came – in his view – to freeload on the inconsistent public transport system and the deteriorating public schools.
By nightfall the tree trunk had been carted away but, as the Lorax had feared, the stump – it was at least 9 feet maybe 12 feet high – was still standing, guarding the entrance to the circular driveway like a Beefeater guard.
“Damn it, Kevin”, Lori said, a hefty glass of Chardonnay in her hand, “I didn’t want them to leave a stump and it is even worse, they left half the goddamn tree.”
“Yeah. They have to come back next week, take it down, and grind up the base. It’s a whole thing.”
“Kevin. That is not acceptable. It makes it look like we are trailer park people.”
“They do it this way so I have to pay for two trips. Its bullshit.”
“That may be so but we have no choice.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Kevin. That thing is not going to stay there.”
“I am serious. Kevin. Do you hear me? That stump is not going to stay there. I do not care if it costs more.”
Kevin didn’t say anything for a moment, but then he made a series of placating grunts that sounded like assent.
* * *
Kevin spent the morning dodging the Lorax’s demands that he address the issue of the stump and he was successful for a time but by the time she left for her afternoon tennis clinic he had run out the string and if he did not do something there would very likely be a complete freeze out from the Saturday night sex he might otherwise expect. And so as Lori left the driveway in the Audi, Kevin walked out to the stump with a chainsaw and a set of those yellow plastic earmuffs that you see on the runway at airports.
The copper beech had had a magnificent dignity standing in the front of Gwendellin but the nubbin of its trunk jutting from the lawn was as raw and obscene as if a body part had been left in its place. The trunk was as thick as Kevin’s wingspan and had a gnarled grey bark punctuated with nibs and cracks so seeing it close up was like taking a careful look at the face of one of those 112-year-old women from Siberia that you could sometimes see on the Discovery Channel.
Kevin fired up the chainsaw but instead of launching into a horizontal cut close to ground level, he left it purring on its side on the grass while he walked back to the garage and fetched a tall stepladder. He vee’d the ladder open next to the stump and climbed up so he could inspect the place where the tree had split. Then he climbed down and moved the stepladder to the back of the stump and climbed up again. This time he spent almost 10 minutes on the ladder inspecting.
When Kevin was done inspecting he walked back to the house, leaving the chainsaw still idling on the grass in plain view for any passer-by to make off with or any kid from the neighborhood to cut off one of their digits, but neither thing happened before he returned to the stump carrying a black book the size of a paperback novel though it was not a potboiler but a sketchbook, one of those books with a lumpy cover and beefy white pages inside. He noticed the running chainsaw for the first time, switched it off and then stood ten feet from the stump, the sketchbook open in one hand, and began to draw.
* * *
The Lorax finished tennis just at that balmy part of a fall Saturday afternoon where if you made your shower last a little longer than usual you could emerge from the locker room at a time when it would not be seen as the mark of a drinking problem to have a glass of chardonnay with a friend on the porch of the Club watching the other tennis players finishing their sets. The Lorax saw her friend Belinda already in position on the porch and, giving in to a guilty pleasure, walked in her direction.
Belinda was in her middle years and organized her social life around the Club. She could be counted on to know every little thing that was happening. Kevin detested Belinda – he called her Belinda the Bad – and refused to talk with her even when she came up to him at a cocktail party and failing to chit-chat could only be understood as rude.
The Lorax was thoroughly aware of Kevin’s view, but nonetheless there was no denying that Belinda was a fun person to share a glass of wine with in the late of a summer Saturday afternoon. In just the space of a half hour it was quite possible – indeed it was inevitable – to get the lowdown on all the interesting events that had transpired in the Club’s solar system within the last week. Seen that way, a glass of chardonnay was an economical way to get the local news, like watching Headline News rather than laboriously wading through The Times.
Armed with a generous glass of red wine, Belinda was terribly excited to see the Lorax come onto the porch. “Lori dear, I am so happy no one was hurt when it came down. A blessing. Just a blessing.”
The Lorax was momentarily confused but she quickly figured it out. “A blessing for the Tree Service, I would say. But yes, thankfully no one was hurt.”
“Oh can you imagine! That old Paw-Paw must have been 100 years old. I remember it when I was a girl and Mrs. Wilton still lived in your house. Did you ever know her? No of course you didn’t, you were still living out in the Midwest, but you should have. She was the grandest lady in this City. She used to wear white gloves when she walked out to get the Bulletin in the morning. I always wondered if she got newsprint on her fingers. So elegant and so proper. Always knew what to say. Her husband – Mr. Wilton – died very young. He ran for Mayor once but he was Republican and of course there was no way that a Republican was going to win a race in this town. Not with the unions. Lori, did you know that if you work for the City they made it so you have to live in the City and so that’s a lot of votes are all going to the Democrat who is in power. That’s the way it works I suppose. Power I mean. But that tree! What did it sound like coming down? I can’t even imagine. Such a mighty roar.”
“Actually we heard the crack when lightening hit the tree but that was what we heard not the sound of the tree actually hitting the ground.”
“A crack! So dramatic! And so big. I heard that they had to block off Clayburn Street all the way to McDowell.”
“Didn’t stop the kids though. They were in there all day. I told Kevin that if he didn’t get it carted away yesterday I was going to have someone’s head. I just wish that they’d gotten it all. Doesn’t it drive you crazy?”
“They didn’t get the stump. They just left it there standing.”
“You wanted it taken away? I assumed you asked them to leave it.”
“A ten foot high broken stump at the front of our driveway? I don’t think so.”
“So Kevin could do his carving.”
“Carving? Ha! No Kevin is cutting it down himself cause the Tree Service left it and he doesn’t want to pay them to come back. And let me tell you, he was none to happy about it.”
“I must have this wrong, so forgive me, but when I drove by on the way here, Kevin was carving the stump.”
“No. He was cutting it down. Cutting down the stump. That’s what he was doing.”
“I am sure you are right. Its just that he had a whole crowd out there watching him with the chain saw and it really seemed as if he were trying to shape that trunk – I think perhaps some type of animal, at least that what it seemed to me – but I was driving by and I didn’t stop for more than five minutes or so and Kevin was not explaining anything to anybody; I think that was why there was a crowd.”
“Kevin was carving an animal into the stump?” The Lorax was thoroughly bewildered. The picture that Belinda painted would not resolve into clarity.
“I am terribly sorry Lori dear if I have it wrong. I should not have said a word. Of course, I was sure that you were aware of it or I would have stopped and spoken with Kevin myself just to get certainty around the matter though you know he tends to be tight lipped with me – he has always been the strong silent type – so I didn’t disturb him. I knew you’d let me in on the secret.”
“I know nothing about this. I think I better say goodbye.”
“Are you going to check it out? Perhaps you won’t mind if I tag along. Here, let me. I’ll put your wine in a roadie and hold it while you drive.”
Kevin Bibby was a capitalist. He vacillated on politics – sometimes he liked a D sometimes an R – but at the core he was a capitalist. There was something extremely just in the capitalistic system. Those that do, that create, that make something of themselves, those were the ones who were rewarded. And the lazy ones, the freeloaders, the armchair Eddies, they were the ones who did not fare so well. That’s how it worked and more importantly that’s how it was supposed to work. That didn’t mean he was against a safety net for the kids and the crippled – they couldn’t be expected to fend fully for themselves – but it was wrong to take away the incentive to make something out of yourself. That he’d always stand against.
And while he was self-aware that he was a capitalist, it was something of a surprise for Kevin to discover that he didn’t want to take the stump down, what he really needed to do – wow, that was the actual word: needed to, not wanted to, or planned to, but needed to – was use the chainsaw as if it was a chisel or a scalpel and bring forth from that mighty trunk the figure crouching inside, the figure he not only saw but sketched on a beefy sheet of white paper.
He climbed the ladder and nailed the sketch into the stump about 2 feet from the top. He had on a pair of heavy grey and blue work gloves with a stiff suede finish. Holding the growling chainsaw by the top of the aluminum loop that served as a handle, he let the blade – actually the chain – bite into the area just below the place where lightening had struck and then he slowly pulled the blade eastwards until he had lopped off the stumptop so it was square-topped instead of jagged and split. Then he began a series of vertical cuts down the face of the stump. He was neither an artist not an expert with a chainsaw, but in just 20 minutes he had cut two broad notches into the trunk and then cut burrows into the wood on either side so that large ear-like, well, ears, were visible on either side of the trunk.
The chainsaw weighed 25 pounds or so but he was not tired. He felt surprisingly good and fresh. For reasons he could not explain, he used the tip of the saw to work down the face of the stump, cutting free the bark and creating a broad flat plane of a space between the ears. It was a face or, said better, a place for a face and if he’d been a painter he could have painted the features there but he was no painter and the saw wanted to pull those features forth from the trunk, not as flat paint on a flat canvas but as a three dimensional representation of a face that was already seeming familiar to him as he worked.
Kevin had to move up and down the ladder. Once he had to come down altogether and move the ladder a foot to the right to get the right angle and when he put down the saw he was startled to see that there were 5 or 10 people across the road who had stopped to watch him. He raised a gloved hand to acknowledge them but he did not want to waste the time to chat so he hoisted the chainsaw again from the base of the tree, climbed the ladder and kept at it. He was working now at the chest of the figure, the face and neck above him still not finished but the shapes were there and so was the topography, though the real action was going on lower and lower.
He stood down from the ladder, turned off the saw and backed away to see the carving from a proper perspective. Wow, it looked pretty good. His chest swelled. He was proud. Kevin was no camper or backwoods man; their handyman Rory handled the yard work. Who knew he had it in him to create something out of this stump?
The Audi drove into the rear driveway and he saw Lori march across the lawn to where he was working. She had Belinda the Bad with her and that was a bad sign.
He didn’t care to discuss the carving with Lori while Belinda was standing at her shoulder memorizing every word he said for later re-broadcast, so he fired up the saw and climbed back up the stepladder.
Lori and Belinda walked from the Audi to the base of the tree. Lori surveyed the carving, the layer of shavings and the people watching Kevin. She yelled up the ladder but realized that with the noise and headphones, he couldn’t possibly hear her. She stood there for a moment, covering her eyes with a hand but woodchips snowed down onto her hair and her Patagonia vest so she retreated back to the Audi.
Lori said, “Oh it’s so loud. I can’t hear myself think.”
“Deafening,” Belinda agreed. “Fortunately he is wearing those ear covers. Otherwise I’m sure he’d go quite crazy. But Lori, don’t you agree that he is not taking down the stump? I am sure that he is carving it.”
“Yes he certainly is.”
“How surprising he didn’t mention it to you, don’t you think?”
“I must have forgotten.”
“Forgotten! I should hardly think you could forget something like that! A wooden statue being carved in your own front yard! In front of Gwendellin! To great your guests. So exciting!”
“Maybe I do remember him saying something about it. Kevin is very considerate.”
“Oh yes. I am sure he is. But did he mention what exactly he would be carving? At first I thought an animal but now it seems more like a person. Is that what you saw too? I could tell there were ears, and a face. A person. But who? Lori, who?”
“Oh Belinda, you know Kevin. He loves a surprise.”
Kevin worked for another 40 minutes or so but it was getting dark. His arms were tired and he began to be concerned that he might spoil his work with an errant cut. He climbed down and turned off the saw. All of his onlookers had departed at this point. He lay the stepladder down in the grass and walked back to the head of the driveway. He lit a cigarette quickly and kept it cupped behind his back in case Lori was looking from the house.
He took out his phone and snapped a few photos. Then he stomped the cigarette into the grass and walked the long walk to the garage. He returned with a blue plastic tarp and an orange extension cord. He pulled up the stepladder from the grass, mounted it, draped the tarp over his carving and wrapped the extension cord four or five times around the trunk to hold the tarp in place. The extension cord did not have all the useful qualities of rope but he was able to fashion a loose dangly sort of knot – like a man’s necktie loosened at the end of the day – that held the tarp more or less in place.
That evening they were scheduled for their monthly dinner at the Club with the Vargas’s. In Lori’s view, Eduardo Vargas was not a serious person. He was a Spaniard and a prolific wine drinker. He and Kevin were part of a foursome that golfed most Sundays. Quite uncharacteristically for members of the Club but true she supposed to his aristocratic Spanish roots, Eduardo hunted grouse and pheasant in season and shot clay pigeons the rest of the year. She could not figure out what Kevin saw in him, but his courtly ways and brimming laugh usually made for a good monthly diner.
Dinner with the Vargas’s was a monthly affair because they were part of the same cohort of members whose monthly minimum expiration date fell on the 15th day of the month. The Club had staggered the dates that the minimums had to be spent so that there wasn’t a stampede to the dining room on the last day as members worked to avoid being charged for unused dining fees. The Vargas’s and the Bibby’s had a standing dinner engagement just prior to the last day of the period assigned to their cohort. They were jolly diners because anything that wasn’t spent by then would go to waste. Indeed, there tended to be an air of extra extravagance and joyful overdoing of things at these diners – particularly in the wine department, even though wine did not actually count against the minimum – but even the usual overjoyfulness of diner with Eduardo was somber compared to the mood this evening.
The source of the extra hilarity was not Eduardo and certainly wasn’t mousy Linda – pronounced lean-da – Vargas who apparently had been coached somewhere in European finishing school that she should reserve her laughter for Eduardo’s jokes. No, the source of merriment was Kevin! Kevin Bibby! The same Kevin Bibby who barely cracked a smile when his hedge fund closed a 7x exit from a large position. But now Kevin Bibby was laughing his freckled head off! He was so loud and boisterous that dinners from other tables were literally coming over to see what it was they were missing and what they found when they got there was that Kevin Bibby was on a roll.
Clearly alcohol was involved. Kevin had had more than his usual since they arrived at the Club – one possibly two Dark and Stormies and then several glasses of 14 Hands cabernet sauvignon – and while that was not nothing, it was certainly not enough to turn Kevin into a groom at his own wedding. He must have partaken before they left. He must have come in the house after the chain saw business and gone straight to the liquor cabinet and poured off a tumbler full of scotch or rum or gin or maybe even clear vodka. Cause there was no other way to say it; Kevin Bibby was drunk.
“I think the thing ya gotta remember Edawardo – Hey I like that, Edawardo, you should change your name my friend – Ed-ah-war-doe. Four syllables, not three. like Silverado. So much more gravitas than Eduardo. Edawardo. Edawardo. Edawardo. Say it three times fast and you are an avocado.” Kevin grinned and looked around the table to make sure Lorie and Leen-da were keeping up. “Anywho, I was just saying amigo you can work your whole life through just to get enough dough to pay your taxes and the bills for school and dance class and before you know it you are walking with a cane. Hunched over.”
“Like your round at Sunny Pines. Eh?” Eduardo smiled warmly and placed both of his hands on Kevin’s right forearm to show that he was screwing around and only doing that because that’s what guys do with each other to show the love. “Yup, hunched over just like last Sunday.”
Kevin did not take the bait but continued his chain of thought as if Eduardo had not spoken. “It’s a shame. It’s a crime. It’s a crying shame and shaming crime. Yes it is. You don’t get the dough ‘til you can’t spend it no more. It owns you; you don’t own it. If you let it. But that’s the trick. Making your plan. Following through.”
Lori jumped in there. “That’s what I have always loved about Kevin – he always has a plan. I don’t know where we’d be without Kevin and his plans. Kevin has a five-year plan and a 10-year plan and a twenty-year plan. And those are just the ones I know about. You have even more, don’t you honey? Tons.”
Kevin batted away Lori’s comments. “Serious stuff here. Edawardo. Avocado. Serious business. A man has to know when to hold em. Know when to foal him.” Kevin broke into song to finish, “know when ta walk away, know when ta run.” He tapered off. “I am just sayin’ there comes a time when a man has to let loose. Blow the caboose!”
Kevin raised his wine glass for a toast and Eduardo met his with his own and the glasses produced a musical clink but the clink was a bit too hard and a wedge shaped bit of wineglass broke out of Kevin’s glass. Lori shouted “WATCH OUT” but it was too late cause a shower of 14 Hands Cab poured over the white tablecloth, not the color of blood but more like the wine colored fabrics you see in a Velasquez painting, and in moments there were three separate members of the Club’s wait staff in black vests mopping and murmuring over and over again no apologies necessary these things happen these things happen not to worry these things happen. By the time equilibrium was fully restored – they actually had to move to another table to finish dinner – Kevin was no longer holding forth on the topic of cutting his caboose loose.
On Sunday morning Kevin bailed on his foursome. Last minute bailing, particularly on the inviolate sanctuary of a summer Sunday morning, was considered exceedingly poor form and the kind of thing that pissed Kevin off when he was a bailee but he had a dull nut of a headache behind his right eyebrow and the idea of whacking the little ball for four hours today seemed an abomination. He palmed down four Liquid Gel Advils – thank God for vitamin I! – before showering. In a half an hour he felt good enough to get back at the carving but then he took firm control over his own thinking and reminded himself that it was a chainsaw and he was going to be standing on a stepladder and maybe it would be prudent to give himself another half hour to make a full recovery and that’s what he did, taking his time dragging his tools out to the end of the driveway, unknotting the loose knot of the orange extension cord, and whipping off the blue plastic tarp that draped the stump.
His sketch still hung from a nail near the top. He climbed the stepladder and took it down. He lowered his head and surveyed the sketch for a while. He wanted to make some changes but the carpenter’s pencil had gone missing and the changes weren’t so great that he couldn’t just keep them in his head so he dropped the sketch on the bed of woodchips, fired up the saw and carefully climbed back up the stepladder.
He had been looking at the empty place where the face would go when he stopped yesterday. He’d seen the face in a flash then, but today that vision was nowhere to be found. Even worse there was no clarity about the rest of the figure. The chain saw was powerful and extremely satisfying to apply to virgin territories of the stump but for the detail that was now needed Kevin needed clarity. To bide time he moved down to the base. He carved two shoes at the base – blocky shoes – almost clogs but they were right there on the ground like the stump was actually standing on the lawn like a man would stand on the ground.
The growling of the saw and the deep satisfying vibration through his arms and core energized him like he had plugged into an energy source. He gouged a long vertical cut into the trunk that revealed two separate legs and once those legs appeared atop the shoes, Kevin got the clarity again. It was like the sun had come out and a beam of warm sunlight poured down like honey just like in the song.
Lori was doing her emails Sunday morning – she and Kevin accepted the thinking that church could be skipped between Memorial Day and Labor Day without arresting anyone’s moral development – before taking the kids to their tennis lessons. She trashed the spam and gave a short glance to the many replies that came to group emails from friends who were either so impressed with themselves that they thought everyone would want to know they could not attend Pilates that afternoon cause Wheezy had a fever or, worse, were so out of touch that they did not know the difference between reply and reply all.
Her mind was not in it, though. Every time she started to bear down on a task the growl of the chainsaw came through her consciousness and it made her think back on the 800-pound pink elephant in the room. Lori was not the sort of young parent who was of the view that having a house with a name meant you needed to act like you were in a movie about High Society but it did impose some responsibility for keeping things up. She hated driving through the crumbling neighborhoods south of the city where the big houses of another year had been converted into apartments or rooming houses. Just last month she had gulped and paid a painting bill that was more than the cost of their first car to get just the trim on Gwendellin painted a clean white. She was damned if she was going to have some homebrew statue carved with a chainsaw in her front lawn like this was a trailer park or one of these cabins in the mountains where a ten-minute drive in any direction would get you to a paintball center. I mean, seriously?
Kevin was finishing some quite detailed work around the belt buckle of the carved figure when he first noticed that Lori was standing at the base of the tree with two mugs of coffee. She was smiling a friendly smile and waving him down. Kevin knew that this coffee was going to come with a discussion and while he did not really want to listen to a discussion this morning he did want a cup of coffee and he was going to have to listen to a discussion anyway, that was for sure, so he might as well have the coffee with it.
He climbed down the ladder, switched off the chainsaw and pulled off the headphones.
“Thanks.” He took the coffee and checked the temperature with a testing sip. “That’s great. Thanks honey.”
Lori gave him another friendly smile and it dawned on him that they had skipped Saturday night sex last night. For a minute he had the thought that the coffee was an invitation to have sex not to hear a discussion, but that thought did not last long.
“How is it coming?” Lori said, “Wow. Look at the progress you are making. Who’d have thought my husband would become an artist.”
“Not much of an artist I’m afraid.”
“Don’t be so modest. It’s a hidden talent.”
“I am enjoying it,” he said.
Lori picked up the sketch from the ground and gave it a close inspection. “Is this where you are going?”
“Oh that’s just a first rough cut draft. It’s changing a lot as I cut.”
“What is it?”
“Just a draft.”
“Seriously. What IS it.”
“Just a concept.”
“Kevin! Stop it! Look at me. What are you doing?”
When he wanted to, Kevin could do a very tight chipped voice. So tight you could hear his teeth click. He used it now. “I am doing just what it looks like. And there is no need to raise your voice.”
Lori took the point if not the message. She hissed “It’s a monster. Kevin why are you carving a monster in our front yard? It doesn’t even have a face!”
“It is not a monster and there will be a face; I just don’t know what it will be yet.
“What do you mean you don’t know? It’s your carving!”
“I haven’t worked out the face yet.”
“Maybe you should stop until you have decided what it is going to be.”
He paused to wonder whether to just say it. What the hell? “It’s not a decision. I am just releasing what’s inside the tree. I am just helping it get out.”
“Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. Listen to yourself! What are you saying, Kevin? It’s mumbo jumbo. Nothing is trying to get out of the tree. There is just wood inside the tree and you are just carving it into an I-don’t-know-what. It looks like a faceless man with snakes in his hair. Why are you doing this? If you have something that you need to let out, can’t you let it out on a piece of paper? Why does it have to be in our front yard?” Lori had forgotten to hiss-whisper; the last was a flat-out shout.
Kevin shook his head. He was not going to engage further. He put down the coffee cup and put on the headphones.
Lori yelled: “Kevin! Kevin! Don’t ignore me! Damn it, Kevin!”
Kevin fired up the chainsaw and climbed up on the stepladder.
Lori scowled a look that would have been as loud as the chainsaw if looks had volume and then she stumped back to the big house.
Kevin had lost the clarity again. Lori’s fault. She was like a damn dog on a damn bone. Yap Yap Yap. He’d made a mistake telling her what he was feeling. He’d known she wouldn’t get it; he knew it’d piss her off. But he’d felt good saying it and it had the benefit of being true.
True that when he first looked at the stump he didn’t even see a trunk he saw the crouching figure of a man. There the shoulder, there the long legs. There the hat – one of those old timey caps like newsboys used to wear. He could even see the tufts of hair emerging from under the hat. They weren’t snakes. Just hair. He could see it all except the face. The face was there but it was like a face you see in a dream or underwater or behind a sheet of plastic. One instant he’d have it but then it’d drift away.
And that was a worry of course. What if he got to the end and the face was still not there and all he had was a crouching faceless figure ready to spring? Damn that’d be a disappointment. But as Kevin thought about it, that possibility actually added some spice to the project. Raised the stakes. Who knew what the hell he was doing? That was the point! He was creating something! Creating was risky business, for sure. But that’s what cutting loose was about. Leaping into the unknown. That’s what a man did, after all.
His internal dialogue ran its course leaving him feeling vigorous and in the right, but the clarity still did not return so after a while he got the tarp from the garage and wrapped the stump in the blue plastic.
Kevin was travelling most of the next week. Lori was home with the kids. The blue plastic wrapping on the stump at the front of the driveway taunted her every time she drove in or out. Kevin had never done anything like this before. He was hard headed sure, every successful man had a hard head, but with Kevin the hard head had been about work or a bad teacher at the kids’ school or money – mostly money when she thought about it – never about a bit of nonsense like this. Maybe it was one of those mid-life things.
Kevin was right about one thing. Belinda was bad news. Even before the Club reopened on Tuesday, Belinda had spread the news about Kevin’s “art project” and because the kids were mini-campers at the Club’s Day Sport Camp Adventure Lori had to be in and out of there four or six times every day and couldn’t avoid seeing the whole crew and every time she did someone would ask how Kevin’s art project was going and when was it going to be done and did they plan a big unveiling party – oh that would be grand Lori really must do it – to show off the finished work of art.
Lori did her best to minimize expectations. Kevin was just hacking around Ha! on an old stump before the Tree Service came and took it out and ground the stump down below the ground so it’d be like it was never there. But the truth was that she didn’t like the questions and she didn’t like the fact that it was all anybody wanted to talk to her about. She couldn’t wait until Kevin got home and she could talk some sense into his hard head.
Kevin came in from in his trip early on Friday afternoon. Lori was running errands and there was no one home but Eunice, the housekeeper who came a few times a week to keep Gwendellin ship shape. Eunice was born in Haiti and she had a musical lilt to her speech that Kevin never tired of hearing.
Eunice gave him a glass with ice before he even asked and he poured himself a Tanqueray and Tonic with a plug of lemon and took it out onto the back patio to enjoy the sun. He kicked off his shoes and skinned the socks from his pasty white feet. He tried reclining on the deck chair at the edge of the pool but then a thought seized him and so he took his drink and tender-walked barefoot out to the front yard. Working with the gin and tonic in one hand, he untied the extension cord and unwrapped the tarp. There was a snag on the top that made pulling the tarp free a two handed job so he set down the drink to do it right. As he pulled off the tarp, all of a sudden he saw the face. It was there for an instant, not long enough to identify who it was but long enough to see that it was a big face, the kind of face that had cheeks as distinct as ears or eyes or the other facial features. And of course the mustache – a real mustache – not some mousey little affair but a big bristly mustache, a mustache you could use to scrub a fry pan if you didn’t have an actual brush handy. A resolute face. A face with stout character. Kevin had the feeling of recognition, but it didn’t form itself into actual recognition before it slipped away.
To Lori’s dismay, Kevin worked on the carving throughout the weekend, though with somewhat less of the fanaticism that he evidenced the prior Saturday and Sunday. If he knew who or what he was carving, he did not let Lori know, even after they’d had sex on Saturday morning. The sex had not been scheduled. The sun was pouring in on their big bed and Kevin just reached over. She decided maybe some sex was just the thing they needed at that moment and being so wrapped up in that thought that she didn’t even lock the door against the possibility that the girls would race in when they woke up. Which the girls actually did do but fortunately she and Kevin had just finished so all they had to do was make sure the girls didn’t get under the covers and discover that there was naked skin where pajamas should rightfully be and that wasn’t too hard to do.
When the girls were downstairs watching videos and she and Kevin showered, she took the risk of saying, “Kev. I am getting a lot of questions at the Club about your sculpture. Everybody wants to know what it’s going to be.”
“Let them wonder. We don’t owe any explanations.”
“Come on Kevin. They are curious. I am curious. We are all curious! What is going on out there? Do you have a face yet?”
“Don’t worry dear. I am making progress. You’ll know soon enough. You can’t hurry these things.”
“What things? That’s what I am wondering – what things are these? Tree carving? Chainsaw sculpture? Where is this coming from? You aren’t a hippie Kevin. You are a businessman, an investor, a finance guy. You went to Wharton, for Chrissakes.” Lori paused for a beat or two then and lowered her voice to bore in better, “What are you doing, Kevin?”
But it didn’t work.
“You’ll see honey. Just be patient.” And later that morning he was out at the tree stump and now he was using a hand saw and a wood file instead of the chain saw and he didn’t even bother getting on the ladder but worked around the shoes and crouching legs. With the extra details you could now see pant legs with cuffs.
Lori played tennis that afternoon and Belinda caught her at the bar afterwards. Lori had just gotten a glass of wine and had to decide in a split second whether to abandon the chardonnay and skip out from the Club or talk with Belinda. Bad as Belinda was, the idea of leaving her chardonnay one sip in was worse and so Lori let herself be drawn into Belindaland.
“Lori my dear, I have been meaning to ask you but every time we chat it slips my mind. Early Alzheimer’s: some days I can remember my name! Are you worried at all about the neighbors? I am sure that whatever Kevin is carving will be lovely but so hard to predict about the neighbors and their reaction. Have you sounded them out? The Richards? The Sythes – oh I know you are thick as thieves with the Sythes – but who ever knows? Remember the Butterfields? The elephant business?”
Sadly Lori knew exactly what Belinda was talking about but she said, “Butterfields? An elephant?”
“Oh dear maybe it was before you guys arrived.” Belinda stood straighter to deliver the story. “The Community Association had their usual big auction for the Hospital. But this year they got big plastic animals – a whole menagerie, life size – lions and tigers and bears oh my – and they got local artists to paint them and donate them for the auction. Oh it was wild. There must have been 20 of them. And a whole black tie evening with The Jimmy Sensor Quartet playing. They were doing a marguerita ice slide, and people were feeling no pain. The bidding was out of hand! They raked in the money that night I will tell you that. Anyway, the Butterfields bought an elephant – life size – you needed a moving van to move it – all painted in psychedelic paints! I swear it was right out of the 60’s and Andy Butterfield fell in love with it – I think he was hippy dippy in college, actually I know he was hippy-dippy, that’s confirmed – and God knows he has the money, so he bid it up to the moon and he put it right out in the middle of his front yard! Right across the street from the Franklins!”
“How did the Franklins like the elephant?”
Belinda, put her hand on Lori’s bare arm, “You got it. That was the million-dollar question and the answer was… Not Much! Not much at all.”
“Did they say anything?”
“That’s the thing. You know Frankie. Sweetest guy. Wouldn’t say a word at first. Even though it was ghastly. I am serious, dear, ghastly. He just decided to wait it out, figured Andy’d get sick of the elephant in a couple of weeks but Andy just loved the stupid thing. He loved it! He’d give directions to his street and then say ‘we’re the house with the Elephant’ like it was a known landmark.”
“What happened? It’s not still there is it?”
“No dear that’s the point. That’s the point. Frankie finally screwed up his courage and went to see Andy. Brought him a bottle of Glenmorangie to lubricate the meeting and finally after a few drinks he comes out with it. Wonders if Andy could consider putting the old elephant in the backyard.”
“How did Andy take it?
“Bingo! Dearie, you ask the best questions! You are known for it. Andy didn’t take it too well. But they’d been sipping single malt and so he took it under advisement and he was thinking about doing it just to be a neighborly kind of guy until he heard that the Brisbanes and Chipper Canfield were taking sides with Frankie. So that pissed him off and he told Frankie that he liked the elephant and he wasn’t moving it. So then Frankie made a ghastly decision – he got a lawyer involved – that was Chipper’s doing I will bet my boutonniere – and the lawyer sends a letter to Andy saying that the elephant isn’t within the zoning and he’ll have to cease and desist.”
“I’m dead serious.”
“So did he have to move the elephant?”
“Here’s the thing. The lawyer was just trying to scare Andy but he didn’t know Andy like I know Andy. If they’d asked me I would have told them that Andy is a Dutchman and Dutchmen don’t like to be pushed around. You know what a Dutchman does when he gets pushed? He pushes back! That’s what he does! So Andy gets his own lawyer and guess who he gets? Ellie Johnson! Can you imagine? That woman is a tiger! A tiger shark! Next thing Andy is countersuing. They take depositions of the Franklins and guess what? The Franklins had one of those stone garden statues in their front garden and also a ceramic birdbath in the garden with a bunch of ceramic birds standing on the bowl dipping their beaks. And so Ellie points out that the Franklins had more animal sculptures in their front lawn than Andy did and their suit was actually harassment and they should pay Andy’s legal fees. Oh my God it was such an imbroglio you wouldn’t believe it. A real imbroglio.”
“I dread to ask, but what finally happened?”
“Andy made his point is what happened. You don’t push around a Dutchman. Once that was established he decided to donate the Elephant to the public school over on Roanoke Avenue for the playground. Frankie paid for the move of course.”
“I know. Such a wow but now you know why I was asking the question. There is no accounting for taste in art. Just no accounting.”
Kevin worked on the body all week when he got home from work. It was the thick of summer and it stayed light until 9:00. He carved a vest onto the bull chest. He carved a tie. He worked on the arms. The hands were too hard so he just left balls where the hands would have been and he hoped they looked like fists. He saved the face for the weekend when he would have strong light and time to concentrate. Hopefully by then he would find – remember! – the face.
There was something very satisfying about the carving. He loved making money during the day. Who wouldn’t? You had to use your brain and your gut. You had to be bold. You had to aggress! That’s what being successful was all about. And the rewards were real. Gwendellin, Lori, the girls. No way he’d have any of them if he didn’t aggress.
The carving was different. He wasn’t making any money, that’s for sure. There was no payday at the end. And all he got was shit. Shit from Lori, from the guys at the Club. The called him Artiste so it rhymed with beast. But despite that, there was something special about the work. He was making something out of nothing! There was nothing like that in his day job. He was creating something. And there was a new feeling he got – he hadn’t felt that feeling before as far back as he could remember – a feeling of pride and satisfaction and, what was the word, humbleness – that spread through him the way a large swallow of straight up bourbon spreads through you on a cold day. An amazing feeling. If that were the only feeling, he’d never quit. But were he being truthful, there was another feeling too. A different feeling but all roped up and entwined with the first feeling. This one he had felt before – there was no doubt what you’d call it – this was flat out fear. The kind of bolt up from sleep in the midst of night fear cause you’d discovered yourself standing completely naked – your private parts literally hanging out – in the midst of a room full of people in formal wear looking at you with a collective look of such weight and density that you couldn’t lift your shoulders to shrug off the disapproval.
“You’re getting a call,” Belinda said, a fey smile on her once pixie face. She raised the glass of wine in a mock toast to Lori. “Very exciting.”
Lori knew she should not take the bait but she couldn’t resist. “A call from who? Whom,” she corrected.
Lori showed no recognition.
“From the Mirror, silly.” The Weekly Mirror was the local paper, a print publication gamely soldiering on in a world gone digital. The stories were puff of course, but the letters well worth the price of a subscription. “He wants to do something on Kevin’s Art Project. He said he is going to give you a call.”
“Oh fuck!” Lori caught herself and clapped her hand over her mouth. “Whoops. Forgive my French! Belinda. So sorry.”
“Oh Lori don’t worry. Not to worry! It’s just the stress. You can be forgiven.” Belinda lowered her voice, leaned in and confided, “and you aren’t alone. You should hear Margaret Daniels! That woman has a mouth! You’d think she was a truck driver! F this and F that. You just can’t get away quick enough.”
“I don’t even understand what he’d write about. It’s just a stump.”
“In front of Gwendellin. That means it’s not an ordinary stump! It’s Kevin’s stump. It’s your stump. It is your statement! Your manifesto! Of course, it is news, dear. Of course.”
“But it’s not my stump.”
“It’s you and Kevin, right? You are the Bibbys, dear. You’re the Bibbys!”
The face still eluded Kevin. He’d seen the cheeks and mustache and glasses distinctly and several times he had glimpsed the entire face, but flashing by like he was on a train seeing a figure standing on the road bed, face up-tipped to check out the train cars racketing past. There was an unpleasant, tip-of-the-tongue, feeling about the face; it was one of the vus – deja or presque – he couldn’t say which. He just couldn’t hold the picture in his mind completely enough or long enough to make an identification. But he was convinced that the face was there, somewhere floating just below the surface. If he just kept at it, the face would come into clarity just as the rest of the figure had come into clarity.
“We need to talk Kevin.”
“Let me guess. It’s about the tree. You’ve been at the Club and talking with your girlfriends about the tree.”
“It’s about the stump, Kevin, there is no tree anymore. And I have been very considerate of your feelings Kevin. I haven’t said a word.”
“You’ve said a lot more than a word. You have said a mouthful.”
“I haven’t said a word about the fact that the Mirror is sending a photographer to take pictures of the stump. Or that Jenna got bullied in Adventure Camp because her father is a crazy artiste. Or that I can’t play tennis without being cross-examined about you going off the deep-end.”
“Lori, it’s just not that big a deal. Let it go. Can’t you do that?”
“No. I can’t. This isn’t just you. We have worked hard to get where we are. It is a big deal. And you better wake up to that fact.”
A confrontation was coming, that was inevitable. It arrived the next Sunday.
Kevin came in from golf around two in the afternoon. He had not been allowed to ditch his foursome again. Eduardo actually came to the house early Sunday morning to make sure the artiste did not get sidetracked. Kevin was annoyed by the bum’s rush to golf but now in the afterglow of the summer afternoon and the pleasant soreness from carrying his bag 18 holes, he decided maybe it had been wise to take a break. The project had taken on a life of its own. He was still not done. There was no face and without a face the rest of the sculpture did not make sense. Maybe the break from the stump and the chainsaw would get the purposefulness back and expiate that fearful feeling that had been coming back again and again when he wasn’t looking.
Kevin stripped his clothes to shower. The white freckled skin of his body stood in sharp contrast to the golf burn on his red arms. He decided to play a little music in the bathroom as he showered so he wandered into his bedroom to look for the Sonos controller. Lori had moved it from the place where it was supposed to be, but after wandering around naked in the bedroom for a few minutes he found the controller on a little secretary’s desk that Lori used as her center of operations.
The controller was on top of an Anderson Black and Red notebook where Lori kept her checklist of tasks. Those notebooks were a fixture in their marriage. Lori wrote down her to-dos in precise printed letters and then crossed through the entries as she conquered each task or converted it to a honey-do. Kevin remembered the notebook that she kept at the time of their wedding. He had been amazed and slightly intimidated. He had never before seen such meticulous organization and attention to the detail of ordinary things. And now after fifteen years of marriage there was a whole desk drawer filled with old Black and Reds, literally hundreds of pages filled with crossed off lists. The body and soul of their partnership, their ambitions, their achievements.
Kevin grabbed the controller and was starting back to the bathroom when he noticed – completely in passing, he hadn’t been snooping even a little bit – the last To Do on the open page: “Call Tree Service” with a precise black line carved across the middle.
Lori and Kevin prided themselves on keeping any fights – not that they had all that many – out of hearing of the children. The beauty of a big house was a regular Mister n’ Mrs. could turn into an epic shout-down without waking the children as long as you kept it to your bedroom suite or down in the kitchen.
“You called the Tree Service to take down the rest of the tree.” Kevin did not say it as a question. He was sitting with a glass of rye in the cushioned window seat in the massive kitchen. “Don’t bother to deny it.
“I did,” Lori said. “I am not going to deny it.” She said it flatly, without emotion. “I called the Tree Service. I told them to come while you are at work. I am sorry, Kevin. I know it matters to you. But it has to go.”
“So you say.”
“Kevin. It has to go. Not the right time. Not the right place. You see that don’t you?”
“When then? Where then?”
“I don’t know Kevin. But not here and not now.”
Kevin shook his head. He got up from the window seat and left the kitchen.
Lori called after him. “There is a place for hobbies. You can set up a woodshop in the basement if that’s what you want to do Kevin. Just not in our front yard.” She said it again. “Not in our front yard.”
He knew what had happened even before he turned onto Clayburn Street. He was still 150 yards from his house but he knew.
He slowed down his Audi and crept forward. When he got past the Sythe’s privet hedge he could see plainly. The stump was gone.
Kevin stopped the car in the street just before the mouth of the driveway. He turned the car off and swung open the door but he didn’t get out. He looked over his lawn. You could still see the tire tracks in the grass from the Tree Service truck. They’d done a neat job. You could hardly tell there had ever been a tree in the lawn.
Kevin looked up and saw that Lori was coming toward him across the lawn, walking fast. She had her head up and was looking right at him.
“I did not do it,” Lori said. “I called the Tree Service this morning. I talked to Jon. I told him I had changed my mind. I hate the damn thing but I decided it was something you needed. And I went off to tennis. When I got home it was gone. There was nothing left. “I freaked out. I was so angry. I called Jon and I started screaming at him. I was out of my mind. I was dropping F-bombs. Seriously. I called him a ‘fucking idiot.’” Lori stopped. “Guess what he said?”
Kevin got out of the car. “I know what he said. He told you that I called after your call and said that we wanted the stump taken down.”
“That is exactly what he told me. But why? I don’t understand, Kevin. You were all-in on the stump. All in. Why did you change?”
Kevin did not respond. He looked past Lori to the place where the mighty, stately, copper beech had once stood. All that was left was a mound of dirt and a sprinkling of wood chips like rose petals. In fact, it looked like the site in back of Gwendellin where they buried Blackie the Skink when the girls found him stiff in his cage last year. Except for the cross. They’d put a little white cross on Blackie’s gravesite to dignify his passing.
Kevin wondered if he should put a cross on this site. It seemed so sad. He’d never even carved the face. Now he’d never know who had been crouching in the tree trunk, though that was a lie. He did know who was crouching there. He’d always known. That’s why he couldn’t carve the face. As long as he didn’t carve the face, the figure never got out. Just stayed there, for better or worse. Stayed put.
Kevin shook his head. He raised one hand and for an instant it seemed as if he was going to slam it into his thigh but he did not. Instead he closed the car door and drove into the driveway. He parked, got out, and without waiting for Lori to walk back in from the front lawn, he let himself quietly back into Gwendellin.