My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 19

Updated 5 days ago By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 19
Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

CHAPTER 19- Esther Falls in Love, but this time with a Man and not a Ferret.

 

Esther and Merritt were to meet many more times in the park. 

Winston played at their feet, and I stood at their side.

I have always been Esther and Meg’s favorite tree; they have always been my favorite girls. When they read books, they sat in my arms and cushioned themselves against my trunk. As they grew older, they perched on my highest limbs, gazed out upon their city, and dreamed the dreams of youth.

They told me their secrets. They reported their news. 

And so it was perfectly natural that when Esther was falling in love, I would be there to observe and to approve.

As their friendship grew, Esther learned that Merritt was a fireman, that he was fascinated by the art and science of fire investigation, and that he was studying to become a fire marshal. His goal, he told her, was to discover what caused fires – all fires – the accidental ones and the ones set by arsonists. 

“Did you ever see the advertisements at the back of old comic books from our parents’ era?  From when they were kids?” he asked.

Esther lifted her arm, flexed her bicep, and in a braggadocio voice, announced, “I was a 97 pound weakling, and bullies kicked sand in my face. Then I bought the Charles Atlas body building system. Now I am a foe to my enemies, and a hero to my friends!”

Merritt laughed. 

“Not that one. The advertisement under it that promised if I sent in two box tops and two bucks, I would get a book that taught me how to become a private eye.”

Esther nodded, “Oh, yes. I remember that one, too.”

“Well, it got me hooked. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be a detective.”

“But you became a fireman.”

“I love being a fireman.”

“Then why…?”

“Slaying fire breathing dragons is a young man’s job.”

Esther tilted her head to one side and studied his head. 

“Am I correct in assuming that you aren’t as old as your hair?” 

“It turned this color when I was sixteen,” he explained.

“How old are…”

“Thirty-six.”

“Then you’re still young.”

Merritt shrugged. “Maybe now. But I won’t always be.”

“And you’re thinking of a career change?” 

“More like a shift. Instead of fighting fires, I would be investigating them.”

Merritt was not Esther’s only friend contemplating a career change. Meg Fitzgerald was also in a state of flux. After working for six years as creative director at an advertising agency, she had begun to feel under-utilized and bored. She groused continually about how much she hated her job.

“Do you have a terrible boss?” Esther asked.

“No. I adore him.”

“How about your colleagues?”

“Fun. Imaginative. Irreverent.”

“Then what?”

“It’s the work itself. If I have to do another layout of another pretty man with a shaved chest and a fake tan reaching for another tube of underarm deodorant, I’ll…I’ll…” 

She crossed her eyes, stuck out her tongue, and made a gagging noise.

Esther laughed. “Well, what do you want to do?”

Meg shrugged. “Join the circus?  Breed cocker spaniels? I adore doe-eyed dogs. Write a book?  I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t have a good enough memory to write an entire novel. Maybe I could become a pretzel vender. Wash windows?  Gnaw on rawhide?  I haven’t got a clue.”

Esther introduced Meg to Merritt early in their relationship, and the first time they met, Meg stood behind him on his park bench, caught Esther’s eye, and gave two enthusiastic thumbs ups.

Occasionally Meg joined the lovers in the park. 

Sometimes she brought Butch, her new cockatiel. Unlike Princess, Butch never mastered the art of staying in one place, and the single time that she let him out of his cage, it took the combined efforts of the entire Fitzgerald family, as well as Esther, her brother Noah, and the groundskeepers, Alonso and Hercules, to recapture the bird and get him back inside.

When all three met in the park, by which I mean Esther, Merritt, and Meg, their summer routine was for Esther to doodle in her notebook while Merritt studied his guide for the fire marshal test, and Meg read Help Wanted ads in the classified section of the newspaper. 

But that changed on the day that Merritt tilted back his head, stared up at the sky, and said, “It’s a beautiful day and I’m an idiot. Here I am with two gorgeous women, but instead of reveling in my good fortune, I am memorizing ignition temperatures and explosive flammability limits.”  He tossed aside the study guide and added, “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”

Winston scratched at his boots. Merritt scooped up the ferret and plopped him on his lap.

“Want some attention, huh, Little Guy?”

Esther laid aside her notebook. “Me, too. I want attention.”

Meg ruffled the pages of her newspaper.

Esther asked her friend, “Do you want attention?”

“Nope.” 

“What do you want?”

Meg smiled. 

“Remember when you used to read to me?”  

“When we were kids?  After you burned your hands?”

“Uh huh. Later, too. I could always get you to read aloud. You’re a covert exhibitionist.” 

Esther smiled. “That might be true.”

 Meg turned to Merritt. “Has Esther ever read to you?”

“No. Why?  Should she?”

“Absolutely. She changes voices for all the characters, and while you’re waiting for Edmond Dantès to escape from the Château d'If, she can work you into a frenzy of expectation.”

Merritt crossed his arms over his chest and studied Esther.

“And there I was, thinking you were just gorgeous, intelligent, funny, imaginative, and…” he looked down at Winston, “a wild ferret tamer. Now I find out that you’re an actress, too.”

“I’m not,” Esther protested. “I can’t act at all. I just read books.”

“Aloud,” Meg said proudly. She stuffed the newspaper into her purse, swiveled around on the bench, and said, “Read to us now, Esther. Please. Please. Please.”  

Esther rolled her eyes.

Meg lifted her head and sniffed. 

“There’s something in the air. I can feel it. I can see it. I can smell it. And I know what it is. Today is an anything-can-happen day!”  She reached for Esther’s purse, pulled out a notebook, an address book, a change purse, a tube of lipstick, and finally a small tattered volume of O. Henry stories.

Meg shoved the book at Esther.

“You never read me these,” she accused.

Esther laughed. “I never read you a million things.” But she took the book. She asked Merritt, “Are you familiar with O. Henry?”  

He shook his head. Then he frowned. “Wait a second. I think...didn’t he write something about a woman who sold her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, but meanwhile, he sold his watch to buy combs for her hair?”

The Gift of the Magi,” Esther nodded. “Great story.”

Meg stood. “Come on,” she said, and she began to walk away.

“Where are you going?”

“To our tree. Stories always sound better when they are read aloud in a tree.”

So they followed Meg up the path to where I stood, draped Winston’s leash around a low limb so that he could play or sleep in the grass below, and arranged themselves comfortably on one of my outstretched branches. 

I was very happy.

That first day, Esther read aloud from The Last Leaf, a singularly appropriate selection for sitting in a tree. It is a beautiful story about a dying young artist who feels that she will live only as long as the last leaf remains on the tree outside her window, and her friend who finds a way to keep that leaf on the tree long enough for the artist to recover. There are other elements to the story that would make you gasp at O. Henry’s imagination and weep at the compassion and sacrifice of the characters, but I won’t tell you because I want you to discover the story yourself.

Reading aloud and putting her whole heart into the interpretation, Esther predictably brought her friends to tears.

When they met at the park the following day, Esther read another story from her tattered volume, and then another and another. With each new story, Meg got more and more excited, sometimes snatching the book out of Esther’s hand to re-read a paragraph to herself, and then thrusting it back and demanding, “More. This stuff is marvelous. Keep going.”

It wasn’t until Esther read The Voice of the City, though, that Meg snapped her fingers and exclaimed, “That’s it. I’ve got it. I know what I want to do.”

I’ll back up a little now and give you a synopsis of that story, because it was the narrator’s process that inspired Meg, and not his conclusion.

This is how it went. 

A character, probably O. Henry himself, begins to wonder about “the composite vocal message of massed humanity.” In an attempt to discover what that message is, he walks from place to place, approaching one person after another to ask if they can define the “broad, poetic, mystic vocalization of the city’s soul and meaning.”

In the course of his search, he meets a beautiful woman, a bartender, a cop, a poet, and a newsboy, and asks each what the city would say if it could talk, including “the laughter and music of the night, the rag-time, the weeping, the steady hum of cab-wheels, the shout of the press agent, the tinkle of the fountains.” 

And so on.

It is a sweet story. In the end, the narrator discovers that the driving force of the city is love, and that its mystic vocalization is the voice of lovers.

“But what if…” Meg began. 

Unable to contain her excitement, she jumped to her knees and, balancing precariously on a branch, she continued, “What if I used O. Henry’s story as a starting point for my own investigation into the voice of the city?  Not his city. My city. Our city. And not just one voice, but dozens of voices. Hundreds of voices. I could write vignettes about people and turn them into a newspaper column. The only reason I never tried to write before is that I couldn’t see myself sitting in a garret with frozen fingers holding a quill pen and tackling something as long as War and Peace  but…”  

Meg continued in this vein for another twenty minutes. 

She was as dramatic at age twenty-seven as she had been at age ten when she tried to bury her first beloved cockatiel under a plaque in the Children’s Garden.

“This city is full of vignettes,” Meg enthused, “and I could write them. I notice things other people miss. And I remember. Like this guy I see every morning on my way to work. It’s as if someone cut him out of the pages of a Victorian novel and stuck him on a park bench by the river. I call him the Pigeon Man.”

“Pigeon as in bird?”  Esther asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Man as in homo sapiens?”

“Exactly. I call him that because he only wears gray. A gray sweater. Gray pants. Gray shoes. He even has gray hair, feathery gray eyebrows, and a grayish pallor to his skin. He always sits on the same park bench with a large bag of peanuts in his lap. He dips his hand into the bag, holds it in front of him, and the pigeons come right up to him and eat the peanuts out of his hand.

“One day last week, I was running about half-an-hour late, and when I got to the bench where he usually sits, the Pigeon Man wasn’t there. I turned to look for him, and found him on the path beside the river. Not sitting, but walking.” 

Meg slid off my branch. 

She thrust her head forward so that her neck jutted out at about a 45-degree angle.

“This is how he moved,” she said, and she took small steps away from me, her head jerking forward and back with each one.  

Esther exclaimed, “Like a pigeon!”

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 19

 

Meg stopped, turned, and retraced her steps.

 

“Exactly. The Pigeon Man thinks that he is a pigeon.” She rested her back and elbows against my lowest branch, and smiled. Winston began to paw at her feet. Meg reached down, lifted him by the scruff of the neck, and thrust him into Esther’s arms.

 

“I could write dozens of stories like that,” she said. “There’s an old lady with ramrod straight posture who sits all day on the ledge of the fountain in front of the Claiborne Hotel. She surrounds herself with shopping bags from expensive stores, because she wants to look refined and wealthy, but in actual fact, she lives on the street. I call her the Movie Star Lady, because no matter what the weather, she is always wearing the same pretty satin slippers with big pompoms, like a 1940s movie star.”

 

Meg glanced thoughtfully at the sky.  

 

Ten seconds later, she swiveled her eyes back to her friends and said, “I never told you about the doorman at the University Club with the blue mustache; the lady who wears stuffed birds on her straw hat; the fat man with the riding whip, or…”

 

After five more such descriptions, Esther flung out her arms and pleaded, “Stop!  I surrender.”

 

Meg asked innocently, “Surrender to what?”

 

“To whatever you want to do, be, or write. You have an eye. Maybe even a gifted eye. You notice things and you see stories where…”

 

“Not stories,” Meg said emphatically.  “Stories have plots. Plots have beginnings, middles, and ends. I don’t do plots. I only do word pictures.”

 

“Word pictures, vignettes, stories, or not-stories. Whatever they are, I know they’d be terrific. Except…” Esther paused. It was a long pause. Then she added softly, “Except for one thing.”

 

“What?” Meg almost snapped.  

 

“Well, describing a story…excuse me. I mean, describing a vignette isn’t the same as writing one. The proof is in the putting.”

 

“Pudding? What pudding? I’ve never understood that phrase.”

 

“Not ‘pudding.’ ‘Putting.’ The proof is in how you put something to the test. How you actually do it. If you think you can write vignettes, do it. Now. This afternoon. Today. Put pen to paper and give us something to read.”

 

Meg pursed her lips in thought. Finally she said, “Okay.”  

 

She reached over, grabbed the ferret off Esther’s lap, cradled him in her arms, and began to scratch his fur.

 

“What do you think, Winston? Will I make a good writer?”  

 

Winston began to lick her hand.

 

Meg laughed. “I’ll take that as a ‘Yes’.” She turned to Merritt. “How about you? What do you think?”

 

Merritt Jones shrugged. “Sure. Do it. I like character studies. ”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really. But don’t expect me to lick your hand.”

 

Meg laughed again.

 

She turned back to Esther.

 

“Now what?”

 

“Now what what?” Esther asked.

 

“What do I do? How do I get published?”

 

Esther inhaled deeply. She exhaled slowly. Patiently, she said, “First you write your vignettes.”

 

“How many?”

 

“Five. No. Ten. Can you do that?”

 

“Sure. Easy.”

 

“Good. Write them and give them to me.”

 

“Then what?”

 

“Do you remember my big brother Carmichael?”

 

Meg smiled wistfully. “I remember his gorgeous gray eyes. Back when I had a face full of freckles and he was an unattainable college boy, I had a colossal crush on him.”

 

Esther raised an eyebrow.

 

“You are aware, I assume, that you still have a face full of freckles?”

 

Meg ignored the observation. “What about Carmichael?”

 

“He’s managing editor of The Daily Globe, and if your vignettes are good enough…”

 

“Nag. Nag. Nag.”

 

“… I’ll give them to Carmichael, and we will see what we will see.”  

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

 

 

 

Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit www.shellyreuben.com.


Comments powered by Disqus