A Lazy Afternoon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

A short story of an old man who is sitting under his favorite tree during the summer in East Tennessee

Almost every day, Terrell set up his chair right next to his favorite tree. A stately chestnut oak with a trunk so large it’d take two people to hug it. He didn’t know how old the tree was, but he knew it was older than him, so that meant before time began he thought. Of course, he knew better, but it was fun to think of the tree that way. The tree was in an odd location as it sprouted in the middle of his fifteen acres as though God himself planted it there to be a watchtower on the rolling plains of his part of the earth. He named the tree Soldier.

 In the summer, when the heat was at its worst, he would take his watermelon tea in one hand, the grayish metal chair in the other, and wander the fifty yards or so to sit under Soldier’s protection. The chair was one he confiscated from Dorothy’s “company” set, the one she used when she played pinochle with her friends once a month on the seventh so that he could enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells while sitting under Soldier’s massive canopy. There was a temperature difference of at least seven degrees under those broad green leaves, his body almost sighing relief upon entering the protective shade.

He imagined the tree liked his company too. It stood there as an aged sentry, tall enough to see the entire length and breadth of his land, and strong enough still, after two centuries, to withstand the spring and early summer storms in East Tennessee. When a summer gale rushed in, he’d stare out his window directly across from Soldier, watching the top of the majestic old tree battle the elements while he, Terrell, was secure, his shelter creaking in protest of the storm. He marveled at the sturdiness of Soldier’s trunk, and if he squinted hard enough, could almost see the rainwater streaming through the ridges of bark, protective as a medieval knight’s armor, down to the foot of the tree where it formed puddles. Reservoirs for a later drink once the storm passed and the heat of the sun returned.

“He’s as strong as I was, the old man,” he’d say to himself. 

When the storm passed, the grand old tree stood proudly in the middle of Terrell’s land, green grass surrounding him, and he, the king of all he surveyed. He stood there victorious, having vanquished another Tennessee storm.

In the cold of winter, Soldier stood, never wavering. When ice formed on the leafless branches, they were like skinny, clear stalactite parasites taking advantage of a sleeping giant. They never lasted long though and Soldier tolerated them as he waited for the spring winds to bring him back to life. Terrell like the cycle he witnessed each year, and continually marveled at the power of that tree. “Resilience,” he’d mutter each spring, “the key to survival…in anything.”

On this particular June day, Terrell wandered out to sit under the protective canopy Soldier offered. The heat was oppressive, hot enough to make the grass beneath his feet almost burn. Terrell never wore shoes on his land. He preferred the soft of the grass, the give of the dirt, and the green stains left behind on his soles since he was a boy. Even in Korea he’d take his shoes off when they were given R&R. It made him one with nature, one with life. Some of his buddies asked why he didn’t like shoes, and his reply was “Men ain’t born to wear shoes. If he were, the bottom of his feet wouldn’t be called soles.” So, when he came home for good, his feet enjoyed their freedom. 

His watermelon tea was the one connection he had with his mother besides the land she’d left him, and the only connection to his home when he served. He used to make it for the boys in the army, when they’d ask, and it would be gone faster than a jackrabbit being chased by a coyote. They’d ask him to make more but watermelon wasn’t easy to get. Plus, the army didn’t think too highly of a man making tea from it. Every so often, someone would find a way to get one and hand it right over to Terrell. Then, the boys drew lots for the last of it, and Terrell always made sure he lost since he picked the lots himself. He’d get more when he got back home. Lots of the boys didn’t make it back across the ocean, but he did, and his tea was waiting for him.

As he made his way over to Soldier with Dorothy’s chair and glass of watermelon tea, he couldn’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be. He placed the metal chair onto the ground, and when he took his place, felt the legs sink just a bit into the soft dirt. After a quick moment, they found their bottom and he was set. Some days he’d sit for hours, sometimes falling asleep, waking to the music of a Swainson’s Flush, a high pitched song like someone running a needle over a vinyl record. Sometimes he’d wake to the tune of a Wood Thrush, varied in tempo, peppered with a high pitched vibrato. There were all kinds of birds on his land, all varied in color and beautiful. Their music was a symphony of birdsong, all showing the different colors and flavors of East Tennessee with Solider as the director and Terrell the captive audience. 

Now and then there’d be the tickle of a bug along his neck. He’d make sure not to kill the wayfarer, gently putting his weather worn fingers near the tickle to let the bug crawl on. Then, with one quick puff, send the little fella someplace in the air, sure that he was going to survive and enjoy his land with him. He’d seen enough killing, and resolved one day during a firefight in the First Battle of the Hook that if he survived, that’d be the end of his killing days. He learned in Korea that everything deserved to live, even the bugs that occasionally wandered off course to land on his person. Time to breathe was so short on this earth anyway, why take away the privilege of life for a small transgression, he thought. Anyone can make an error. The entire war was an error in his mind.

“Well, you old soldier, how we doin’ today, huh? I guess it’s gonna be another hot one, but I’ll bet you’ve seen more than your share, am I right?” He spoke to the tree as though they were best friends, and in his mind, they were. His drink was sweating, making his right hand wet. He sighed deeply, then took a sip from his glass. The sweet taste of the watermelon, with just a hint of mint quenched his thirst.

“Ahh,” he breathed, “here’s to ya, Gray. I know you wish you were here with me, but that’s ok, It’s prolly better where you’re at anyways. Prolly always sunny and seventy-five, not like now when it feels like I’m in the devil’s playground.” 

He thought of Johnny “Old Gray” Stepson often. Gray got the nickname because of his premature hair coloring. They’d grown up together, went to the same church, and enlisted at the same time. He was there when Gray got shot, a sniper’s bullet meant for him, but Gray got in the way at the last second, trying to get the radio working so they could call for help. Terrell held his friend’s head in his hands, Gray’s eyes wide open, a look of surprise on his face. Terrell shook his head briefly as though to clean his mental slate, and took another sip of tea. 

“That’s ok, Gray, as long as I got the tea, I got you too. Ain’t that right, Soldier?” He said those words as he turned slightly left to look at his tree. He didn’t expect an answer but his mind heard one anyway. 

Terrell’s eyes soaked in everything he saw. Grasses, trees, the blue sky and an occasional buck that appeared around the edges of his land. It was all God’s handiwork and he was alive to enjoy it daily. Occasionally, he’d see a butterfly zig zagging through the air like a drunken pilot, then hear the buzz of a passing flier of some sort, zipping right past his ear like a Japanese Zero or a too-close-for-comfort bullet meant for him but barely missing.

The heat waves were coming off the grass enough to blur his deep vision. He always marveled at that, how God would let you know how hot it was by allowing you to see the heat, or how cold it was by allowing you to see your breath. That’s how he’d defined cold since he was a boy; if he could see his breath. Today, it was the heat, wave after wave of it forming a see-through wall throughout his land.

“Soldier, I don’t know how you can stand it, all this time,” he said to the tree. Then, after a pause, he smiled, while still looking across his land. “I guess ya just get used to it, am I right?” The glass of tea resting on his lap left a wet circle on his pants. Lifting the glass to his mouth, a few beads of sweat fell off the glass and again, splashed on his pants, with one or two wayward droplets hitting his shirt. 

“You’ll be here long after I’m gone, just like you were here long before I got here. I’m just another one passin’ through, but I guess you knew that already.” 

He allowed his mind to drift in these sitting sessions with Soldier. He thought about the war, his friends, and the life he never had. It was a life he never wanted anyway once he came home. He just wasn’t the same. He was still, in many ways, back in Korea. That place took something from him, but he wasn’t sure what it was. His Dorothy died shortly after he’d arrived home, She died of the fever here on his family land, and once she was gone, that was it. He just wanted to be alone, shunning the reunions, friends who would come calling, and who eventually stopped when he didn’t reciprocate. He loved his privacy, his aloneness, and that was good enough for him.

His friends asked shortly after Dorothy died if he’d wished they’d had kids. He always responded the same way.

“If God wanted us to have kids, I’d have taken ‘em, but he knows better than me which is why we prolly didn’t get any. Besides, Dorothy was better for ‘em than me anyway. Now, God left me with the Soldier, and I’m fine with that.”

Most of his friends didn’t understand, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that he understood. Now, in the twilight of his days, he understood more than ever. He understood that time was given to him and it was up to him as to how to spend it. 

“Like that parable in the Bible,” he’d say to those who asked why he was alone. “One guy got a coin and buried it, one guy spent it, and one guy turned it into more. Me? I chose to bury my time, seein’ as I spent so much of it over there. God may not be happy with me, but I guess I’ll take it up with him when I see ‘em. Maybe Old Gray said a few things in my favor and he’ll give me a break. Maybe.”

“I don’t know, Soldier,” he finally said, “I just don’t understand this life no more. They’re all gone, all of ‘em, and here I sit, with you, just waitin’ for God to come get me. Hell, he already has Dorothy and Old Gray…what’s he waitin’ for?”

Soldier didn’t answer but to rustle his leaves as a breeze swept through.

“Yeah, I hear ya,” he responded. “I ain’t supposed to talk to God that way, but it’s the only way I know how. I guess he’ll come by and take me when he’s good and ready, am I right?”

As if on cue, the leaves rustled again, another warm summer breeze blowing through.

“See? I knew I was right. Momma used to tell me that if I listened hard enough I’d hear things that others wouldn’t. The world has a lot to say through nature, so I learned to listen.”

As usual, Terrell lost track of time. His tea was long since finished and the glass dry. The sun was beginning to set and the cool air starting to replace the furnace of midday. Even soldier seemed to be closing down for the night, his shade darker and darker as though on a dimmer. 

“Well, ya old cuss, I guess I’ll take ‘er back inside. Another day, another afternoon enjoying your shade. I thank ya.” 

With that, Terrell tapped the tree with his open hand as though patting a good dog on the head. Smiling he said, “I’m sure I’ll see ya tomorrow.” 

He folded Dorothy’s chair, and reached down to pick up his empty glass. He took one last look around and then filled his lungs to capacity, letting the air out audibly and slow. Then, looking at Soldier said, “Hey, ya never know when it’ll be your last, so stop laughing.”

Then, smiling, began the slow, waddle like walk back to his house for the night.

Submitted: May 12, 2020

© Copyright 2023 Mike DiMatteo. All rights reserved.

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