By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 23

Chapter 23 Cast of Characters

Illustrations Ruth McGraw

My fellow climbing trees and I never counted the number of fatigued and frightened souls who fled their flooded homes and came to us on the night of the storm. On and off, at least ten people were sitting, eating, or sleeping on my branches at any given time. To a greater or lesser degree, my friends shared this experience, the bigger trees accommodating more and the smaller trees fewer.

The most remarkable thing, and we all noticed it, was how, shortly after the Swerling family and their friends began to distribute sandwiches, hot drinks, blankets, and good cheer, our newcomers became less frightened, and their fears and weariness quickly turned into hope.

There were jovial exchanges of the “I’ll trade my tuna for an egg salad sandwich” or “Anyone want to swap raisins for a plum?” variety, until everyone had what he or she wanted. As they dined, Meg and her cohorts continued to banter with our temporary residents, carrying huge garbage bags from bench-to-bench and tree-to-tree for discarded food wrappings, plastic cups, and other debris.

After the eating had stopped and the garbage was collected, an odd sense of quiet descended upon us all.

Then and just then, the stars came out.

Before the storm, the city’s night sky was so continually illuminated by fluorescent lights in office buildings, neon signs, billboards, streetlamps, traffic signals, and vehicle headlights, that stars were something we only read about in books. But the night of the storm, people who had never seen a star before could see, not only Venus and the Big Dipper, but also the galactic expanse of the Milky Way.

This brought to mind how Sam, until he entered college, had never seen a tree. And once again, I felt that sense of pride in him which has always been such a big part of my life.

First, Samuel Swerling gave his city climbing trees.

Now he was giving us a sky filled with twinkling stars.

Each star was like a song, and each twinkle was like the delicate clink of crystal goblets in a sweet, serene, and joyous toast to camaraderie, to fortitude, and to life.

Unquestionably, friendships, and even bonds between lovers, were formed that night.

Unquestionably, as the water began to recede, not a single person being sheltered beneath our boughs complained about discomfort or attempted to go home. 

But, just as those inside the park wanted to stay, there were others – individuals who had not fled flooded homes – who tried to enter, but who were denied admission.

Yes. You heard me right.

We discriminated. We kept them out.

And we did so consciously. Deliberately.  Premeditatedly. 

I mentioned earlier that when Esther was very young, she devised a jamming system to block cell phone signals. That night, it blocked a variety of other electric and electronic devices as well, and in doing so, protected us from a media invasion. It was our old friend Alonso Hannah who, monitoring the surveillance cameras in the greenhouse, saw a particularly unwelcomed individual sloshing through knee-deep water towards our gate.

He alerted Herk.

Hercules walked to our entryway, and it was there that, behemoth-like as his father once had been, he encountered our old nemesis, Jarvis Larchmont.

Jarvis stood among a soggy band of equipment operators, including a short, chinless man carrying a bulky audio-video camera; a tall, spikey-haired woman clutching a cordless microphone; a pimply fellow with huge biceps lugging a large LED light; and a man whose face was hidden by a rain hat, who seemed to serve no purpose other than preventing their equipment-laden motorboat from floating down the street.

Our groundskeeper stood at the park entrance. In as few words as possible, he advised the interlopers that the Samuel Swerling Park was privately owned; that admission was by invitation only; and that they had not been invited.

In response, Jarvis pushed his cameraman aside, struck a pose, and said, “As your City Councilman, I demand that you step aside!”  

Herk crossed his muscular arms over his broad chest, and his whole body seemed to expand to fill the opening in the gate.

Jarvis ignored him and turned to his cameraman, who in turn, raised the viewfinder to his eye, pressed a few buttons on the video recorder, nodded, and said, “Three.  Two.  One.”

At the word “one,” Jarvis smiled ingratiatingly, and spoke into the lens.

“My name is Jarvis Larchmont, and I represent the Midtown district of our Great City.” He made a sweeping gesture toward the park with his right hand. “I am speaking from the entrance to our beautiful Samuel Swerling Park where, during this terrible hurricane, we have provided a haven and a sanctuary to waterlogged citizens who slogged here through raging floodwaters in total darkness, in search of food, comfort, first aid, and…”

The cameraman began to shake the video recorder. “It isn’t working,” he grumbled. He looked over his shoulder and yelled, “Sylvia, are you getting audio?”

The tall, spiky-haired woman shouted, “No audio, Harry. And no video. How about you, Garcia?  I don’t see any auxiliary lights.”

The pimply-faced man called out, “No power, Sylvia. Nada.”  He shouted to the man in the rain hat, struggling with the boat. “Louie. What’s going on with the satellite dish?”

A harassed and breathless voice gasped back, “We’re … in … a … dead … dead … zone.”

Jarvis’s head swiveled back and forth, trying to catch all questions and answers as they catapulted from ear to ear.

“What?” he called out each time. “What?  What?  What’s going on?  Are we broadcasting?  Do you want me to start again from the top?”

But by then, Harry, Sylvia, and Garcia had already plodded backward through knee-deep water and were helping Louie to re-load their gear into the boat.

But…But…” Jarvis sputtered, abandoning his post at the park entrance and sloshing wetly after them.

Herk shook his head, rolled his eyes, and unfolded his arms. On his way back to the greenhouse, he passed under a tree. He did not notice that Meg Fitzgerald, no longer engaged in rescue efforts, was sitting on a bough of that tree, her back against the trunk and a legal pad propped up on her bent knees.

Things were happening, and Meg had witnessed many of them.

Illuminated by a small flashlight wedged into knothole, she scribbled furiously, creating word pictures.

About buoyant spirits.

About unwavering endurance.

About awkward meetings between strangers; frantic searches; blissful reunions; and funny, comic interchanges.

Here. There. Everywhere.

Meg hunched over her pages, and wrote the first in her series of vignettes:

A beautiful fair-haired woman sitting alongside a wizened octogenarian on the broad branch of a short tree who, in pantomime because the old man spoke no English, instructed him to hold her mirror while she reapplied her makeup, carefully penciling in red, red, lips. Then, removing a rumpled handkerchief from his suit jacket pocket, she gently wiped moisture off the old man’s brow, deftly refolding it into four sharp points, and neatly tucking it back into his pocket. Whereupon the octogenarian took it out again, studied it intently, reinserted it into his pocket, and gave her a beatific grin.

Meg wrote about an eleven-year-old boy with huge amber eyes, very black skin, a long neck, and a sweet smile, who had gone from park bench to park bench, clutching a composition notebook in his hands and enjoining frightened people to play Hangman’s Noose or Tic-Ta-Toe. And, after several games, moving on to other fearful souls, and others, and others, and others, bringing smiles to their faces, and doing the same thing over and over again.

Meg wrote about the Santiagos, who own a coffee shop on Metuchen Street. Ignacio Santiago, an amateur magician, was short, pudgy, and had laughing eyes. Consuela Santiago, his wife, had beautiful hands and a generous heart. During their free time, Ignacio and Consuela entertained patients in hospitals and nursing homes. But on the night of the storm, Ignacio’s stage was our little stone bridge, where, to the laughter of no-longer-frightened children, he pulled silver dollars out thin air and rabbits out of top hats, while, several feet away, Consuela distracted older children with cat’s cradles, Jacob’s ladders, and witch’s brooms, made entirely out of long pieces of string.

Meg wrote about people she recognized and people she had never met. She called her column “Cast of Characters” with a subheading “Making memories … Surviving the Storm.”  Then, as an afterthought, she dashed off a short piece about Jarvis Larchmont, describing him as a self-aggrandizing bureaucrat who had tried to take credit for what others, i.e., the late Sam Swerling’s family and their friends, had done. That article, it turned out, was unnecessary, because Esther’s brother Carmichael wrote a much longer story emphasizing all of the good things that had happened in the park and ending with an unflatteringly accurate description of our city councilman’s misdeeds.

Carmichael had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish his column, but he hadn’t started to write until everything that was going to happen had already happened, and all in need of food and shelter were stretched out on a branch or bench and sound asleep. Meg caught up with him in the final stages of these activities, observing silently as he helped one lost soul to find her way to the greenhouse bathroom and two exhausted children to change into fresh pairs of dry socks. 

Carmichael was a tall man. He had his airline-pilot father’s square jaw, his grandfather’s Indian-head nickel nose, and his own perpetually amused gray eyes. He had just returned a fallen hairclip to a little girl on the jutting branch of a climbing tree when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

He turned, looked down, and saw the top of a very red head.

“And who are you?”  He asked.

Meg grinned up at him.

“Honestly, Carmichael,” she said in mock disgust, “We’ve known each other for over ten years. Don’t you remember anything?”

Esther’s brother leaned an elbow against the trunk of the tree and studied his verbal assailant. She was a little bit of a thing, no more than five-feet-two-inches tall. Her hair was as glossy as a copper penny, but other than her face having becoming thinner, her cheekbones more pronounced, and her eyes wiser, she looked very much the same way she had as a teenaged girl.                 

“Well, well, well,” he nodded appreciatively. “A voice from the past.”

Meg assumed a similar pose against the tree opposite, and said, “Not so far in the past. Just a decade.”

Carmichael nodded again, “And you say we’ve known each other all that time?”

Meg shrugged. “Well, sort of kind of known each other.”

“Uh huh.”

“Through Esther.”

“Uh huh.”

“And we really truly did meet.”

“Once,” Carmichael pronounced firmly.

“Ah ha,” Meg said triumphantly. “So you do remember!”

“You were a freckle-faced kid then, and you’re still a…”

“Don’t say it!”

Carmichael shrugged.

“But you remember my name!” Meg exclaimed.

“Of course, I do. I remember you perfectly. In fact, I’ve always believed that someday, a very brave man was going to sidle up to that pretty face of yours and win your heart by connecting all the dots.”

Meg snapped, “That’s not funny.”  Then she started to laugh.

Carmichael pushed himself away from the tree trunk, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hey there, Stranger.”

Meg reached for his hand. But instead of shaking it, she deposited her legal pad into his open palm. And she told Carmichael about her vignettes.


Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

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