Kirby Wright was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of Hawaii and lectured in China with Pulitzer winner Gary Snyder. He was also a Visiting Writer at the 2010 Martha’s Vineyard Residency in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the 2011 Artist in Residence at Milkwood International, Czech Republic. He is the author of the companion novels Punahou Blues and Moloka’I Nui Ahina, both set in the islands. His futuristic novel will be released in 2013 in Dublin, Ireland.
Burt and the Christmas Tree
In memory of Joyce Kilmer
Burt Henke clerked for Lorain Water Utilities in Ohio. It was a dead-end job, but life wasn’t so bad. Judith Landers, a co-worker, was his girlfriend. Judith was Junior Controller and the only one who complimented Burt when he wore his Aloha shirts to company picnics and parties. They had an agreement she wouldn’t bring up his weight if he avoided calling her “Shorty.” Burt spend weekends and holidays with Judith, that is, when they weren’t flirting beside the water cooler or sharing paperback lunches in the employee lounge. He’d given her a promise ring during a TGIF bash on Lake Erie, but no wedding date had been set. They couldn’t decide on a location. Judith was from Iceland. Burt was a Lorain native. To top things off, Burt suffered an attack of cold feet after Judith gave the thumbs up for Water Utilities to hack down an oak on the beltway, one whose ancient roots had caved in the water main and caused a stream to percolate up. The stream ran the beltway’s shoulder, spurted over a concrete berm, and flooded a popular park.
“Will you kill the oak?” Burt asked Judith.
“That seems drastic.”
“Remember the equation, Burty. One dead oak equals 500,000 gallons a month in saved water, a safer beltway, and a park to play in. Now that seems like a fair exchange.”
“I guess so,” Burt mumbled.
Burt was crazy for Christmas. Everything about it excited him, including mistletoe kisses, Santa, flying reindeer, and opening presents. He loved running colored lights along his eaves, sticking plastic Santa signs on the lawn, and plopping a Season’s Greetings mat outside the door.
Burt selected a six-foot pine at Home Depot. He sunk it in the plastic tree stand in his living room and tightened the steel anchoring prongs. He ‘trimmed the tree,’ as his mother used to say, which meant stringing garlands of white lights and hanging the hand-me-down ornaments his big brother had sent after clearing out their parents’ house. Burt switched on the lights and stood back to admire his work. This tree seemed different. It had an emerald hue and its needles seemed perky. The spine was as straight as a board and there was elegance in the way its branches swirled around the trunk like the arms of a ballet dancer. “Sweet, sweet tree,” Burt said.
He always spent Christmas with Judith. But this year she was off visiting relatives in Iceland. He didn’t mind. He smirked thinking how hoards of sheep had deforested her country by munching everything with roots. On Christmas Eve, Burt played holiday music and cracked a bottle of cognac. He opened Judith’s gift and found a set of copper wind chimes. He unwrapped the rest—mostly joke gifts from office pals. He’d quit exchanging presents with his brother after their parents died.
“To mon belle amie,” Burt said to the tree, raising a silver shot glass. Speaking French made him feel sexy. He loved this tree. She was brilliant, with sparkling garlands of light circling her amber trunk and shapely branches. The ornaments glistened like jewels. “Wilma,” he whispered, “votre nom est Wilma.” He took down a few more shots and stroked her needles. Just for fun, he splashed cognac in Wilma’s reservoir of water. He hugged her as Nat King Cole crooned, “O Tannebaum.” He pretended they were waltzing in a big ballroom with French Provincial décor and crystal chandeliers.
New Year’s Eve came and went but Burt still had his tree up. Wilma wasn’t losing needles and he loved the lights and ornaments. She drank water like a fiend and Burt refilled her reservoir dutifully. But he knew the day would come when the level wouldn’t change, needles would fall, and branches would droop. Then it would be time to rewind the strings of lights, pluck ornaments, and chainsaw Wilma into little pieces for recycling. But the drinking continued. Wilma guzzled past Martin Luther King’s birthday and made it to Valentine’s Day. Burt quit switching on her lights—he didn’t want neighbors to start asking questions. He quit answering the doorbell.
Wilma didn’t wilt. Instead, she seemed to be growing. On the Ides of March, she sent out bouquets of new green shoots. Burt wondered if she needed more light. He hired a contractor to help him tear down a wall and they replaced it with a picture frame window. A skylight followed, one that bubbled out to make room for Wilma’s rising crown. Then her trunk expanded, cracking the plastic stand. Burt came home from work, sloshed through wet carpet, and found the reservoir bone dry. He was sure this was her death blow. He unscrewed the steel prongs that kept her anchored and peeled off the stand. Surprising, Wilma didn’t topple over. Then Burt saw something truly strange—a root system had developed at the base of her trunk and seemed attached to the floor. Burt snipped away carpet. He found chunks of foundation cement. He scooped the chunks out and spotted roots entering the dirt below. “Oh, Wilma,” he whispered, “qu’avons-nous fait?”
Burt consulted Dr. Bone, a renowned hortacologist, through Skype. He carried his laptop into the living room and tilted the screen.
“That conifer’s got a mind of its own,” chuckled Dr. Bone.
“What kind is she?” asked Burt.
“A pinyon. A scrub pine and hybrid of the great conifers.”
“She’s a mulâtre?”
“I’m sorry, Burt. I’m not familiar with French.”
“Is she a mongrel, doc?”
“Let’s put it this way,” the doctor said through the laptop, “never burn her inferior wood in your fireplace.”
April arrived. The cold snap was over and families flocked to the park. The old oak had been removed, the main repaired, and locals no longer had to wade through water to reach the playground and the park’s spacious lawns. Judith got promoted to Senior Controller for all her hard work.
Burt figured the decorations were torturing Wilma, especially after her growth spurt. Her crown was bending against the bubble skylight and she’d grown husky off the extra light from the picture window. Burt pulled off the vine-like light strands and unhooked the ornaments. “Voici, mademoiselle,” Burt bowed, “être bien naturel.”
Judith knew Burt had an obsession. She’d been over at his house on Saint Patrick’s Day when he toasted “mon magnifique arbre,” pouring frothy Harp beer over the tree’s branches. She’d quit dropping by after that. On Good Friday, she stuck her promise ring on Burt’s desk and took off to go skiing in the Alps.
The doorbell rang on Saturday morning. Burt swung the door open before realizing his mistake. A pair of Girl Scouts stood on his Season’s Greetings mat, a red wagon between them. The wagon was loaded with boxed cookies. The girls seemed frozen, lips parted, as they gazed in at Wilma. Burt spotted a mother over the blonde one’s shoulder—she stared disapprovingly at the door, as if he’d said something off-color or made a lewd gesture.
“What is it, Emily?” the mother called. “What’s going on there?”
“Got thin mint?” Burt muttered.
The redhead handed him a box. Burt thrust her a fiver, shut the door, and slid the dead bolt. He held his back against the door and waited until he heard little steps chatter away over the sidewalk.
A week after Arbor Day, Burt knew it was time. He went to the Lorain Planning Commission and made the arrangements. A fleet of trucks pulled up to his home. Workers piled out and unloaded chainsaws, jackhammers, and mallets. A baby bulldozer arrived towing a buzz saw.
“Jesus,” Burt said, looking through the picture window, “Oh, Wilma.”
Neighbors gathered on the sidewalk. The two Girl Scouts stood frozen in the gutter, even though it was 70 degrees.
“What’s that they’re doing?” Burt heard Mrs. Bloomberg say.
“Chopping,” answered the Girl Scout mother.
“Chopping what?” asked Mr. Darwin.
“A Jolly Green Giant marijuana tree.”
Men came in and dropped a canvas shroud over Wilma.
“You’ll have to leave now, sir,” the foreman told Burt.
One worker shattered the picture window with a mallet. Another marched in through the front door with a chainsaw, its steely teeth flashing.
“Poor Wilma,” Burt moaned.
The foreman led Burt away from the house.
It was mid-morning on July 4th. Wilma stood in a tiny park, her magnificent crown rising for the sun and emerald branches fanning out. Burt’s quarter-acre had been rezoned under a special exemption clause, thanks to Judith’s pull with the Lorain Planning Commission. It had taken three months to demolish Burt’s home and replace it with a miniature park.
Burt rested under Wilma’s bows. He was reading the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. He loved the sounds of wings caressing the air and the wind moving through branches. “I think that I shall never see,” Burt read out loud.
“A poem as lovely as a tree,” came a voice from a picnic blanket. It was Judith. She’d reclaimed Burt’s promise ring and let him move into her Lake Erie bungalow. Their wedding was set for Christmas Eve right here at the park, with Wilma decorated and gleaming in her holiday finest.
être bien naturel: to be natural
qu’avons-nous fait: what have we done