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Seedlings

September 11, 2014
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Augie found the house in Queens where the woman lived. He sat in the pickup, the engine idling.  It was a clear morning, and if Gabe were here, he’d point to one of the houses and tell Augie that roof  isn’t going to make it through the winter.  Augie would disagree, although deep down, he wanted to tell his son he was right. Gabe would persist. Still, Augie wouldn’t budge. “Pops, you’re like a tree,” Gabe would say. “Just like a tree.”

Augie turned off the engine and stepped outside into the cool air. It was a short walk from the curb to the door. It felt like he was going down the aisle again. He pressed the doorbell and thought about Gabe. A woman answered the door and Augie recognized her voice. Her name was Sophie.  She’d called the other night. They talked for almost an hour.  Augie couldn’t remember ever staying that long on the telephone. Sophie gave him a hug in the doorway, something he wasn’t expecting.  She seemed about to cry.  Augie looked around the room, unsure what to say. He told her how nice everything was decorated.

“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes.  “I feel we have a connection. And yet, when you think about it, we’ve just met. ”

They sat in the living room, the aroma of coffee from the kitchen reminded Augie of what it was like coming to breakfast with his wife and son.  Sophie set out a plate of cookies. “Homemade,” she said.   Delicate pink flowers decorated the edges of the plates.

She asked Augie how he liked living upstate. He told her he quit roofing. “I work in a home improvement store helping do it yourselfers. Two years ago Gracie passed away, and our quiet little place, well now it’s quiet in a different way, maybe not so quiet, if that makes any sense. But there’s lots of trees.”

“Oh, you like trees?  Me, too. But they drive my husband crazy–all those leaves.  If it was up to him, he’d cut them all down. I hope you remembered to bring Gabe’s photograph.”

Augie reached clumsily into his shirt pocket for it.  Sophie said she saw the resemblance, then covering her mouth she closed her eyes momentarily and crossed herself.  Augie lifted a cookie from the plate, spilling powdered sugar on himself.  He took a small bite. Sophie brought over a framed picture that was in the breakfront.  His mouth felt dry.

“My Isabel,” Sophie said.

Augie was afraid he might drop the frame if he held it. “I’m clumsy, Sophie.”

She said she understood and held the photograph so he could see it.  From what Sophie had told him over the telephone the other night, Isabel met Gabe that morning on the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan. He sat next to her.

“A beautiful young lady,” Augie said. “No wonder Gabe was excited they met.”

Sophie looked at the photograph as she spoke. “Isabel called me while they were walking up Broadway together. Just to tell me about meeting Gabe. They both sounded excited, maybe in love.  Isabel was always shy, but at that moment, she didn’t sound shy at all. I think your son knew how to open her heart.”

Augie was afraid if he spoke his voice would sound weak.  He just nodded.

“They would’ve made a nice couple,” Sophie said.

“It was Gabe’s first day of work,” Augie said finally.  He brushed the cookie crumbs from his lap into the napkin. “It was my idea, a job in Manhattan.  Gabe, he wanted to go into roofing with me. No, I said. I don’t want that for you.  He was a smart boy, smarter than I ever was. Good business sense. I couldn’t see him roofing, not with his talents.  Besides, men get hurt all the time in my line of work.  It’s just not safe.” He looked up at Sophie.

The drive home took five hours. Augie felt tired as he opened the front door. But he knew it wouldn’t matter.  He was stone tired most of the time and still couldn’t sleep at night.

The next morning, he didn’t go to work.  He didn’t eat.  By late afternoon he decided to take out the ladder and climb up to the roof of his house, not sure why he wanted to go up there, except maybe to feel the sun on his face.  He got onto the roof and stood and turned toward the edge, expecting to look out over the acres of land he owned. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw.

Over the years, in the hope that it’d make him tired enough to sleep without the constant feeling  of remorse, he’d taken a crosscut saw to the trees on his property, cutting them down one by one, then into smaller logs, until choking on sawdust and overcome with exhaustion, he’d go inside and fall into bed.  And now as he stood facing the sun low on the horizon, all he saw were remains.  Nothing was left standing. One tree after another, cut to the ground.

He remembered what Sophie had said about Gabe and Isabel. Augie had always blocked his mind’s picture of Gabe during those final moments. But now, knowing that Gabe hadn’t faced it alone softened the pain.

Augie climbed down the ladder and drove into town.  He returned, the pickup’s cab filled with seedlings.  He brought a lantern and a shovel from the shed, and dug into the soft earth to plant the tiny trees.  He worked through the night. When morning came and he had finished planting the last one, he lay down beside it, like a child, and thought about the people who would someday walk here beneath the trees when the seedlings were grown. He’d never considered such things until now.

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