Bob Hansen first noticed the tree when he and his wife Janet, together with their real estate agent, visited the house on a bright day in June. The tree was one of four on the lot but stood taller than the others and had no leaves. It was about fifty feet high, towering over the house. In the afternoon sun, the branches cast menacing and bizarrely shaped shadows over the back yard, shadows that extended to the roof of the split-level home. The trunk was about five feet in diameter. The color of the bark was somewhere between brown and black, and pieces of it lay on the ground surrounding the tree's base. The abandoned shreds looked like the discarded remnants of an eggplant, rotten shavings that a distracted cook had left on a kitchen counter.
Soon after Hansen and his family moved into the house, he set to work on the weekends cleaning up the untended yard. He was picking up pieces of the leafless tree's decayed bark and putting them into a lawn bag when a neighbor from the house behind his back yard walked over. There were no fences separating their homes, and the neighbor greeted Hansen as he approached. His name was Harvey Nelson, and he wore thick glasses and had a light brown beard. Nelson was a professor at the nearby community college. He spoke in a quiet, thoughtful way.
Nelson gazed up at the tree. Hansen asked him what kind it was.
"It's a silver maple," said Nelson. "Or, I should say, it was. It's dead. You really should get it cut down. It could fall over in the next big storm."
"You're probably right," said Hansen. "All this is new to me. My wife and I lived in a townhouse before moving here. We don't know much about trees and all the other things that come with a lot like this." The house sat on about a fifth of an acre but its yard was big compared to the townhouse's.
"If you'd like, I can give you the name of a good tree guy," Nelson said. "He's done some work for us. He's pretty reasonable."
Hansen had the arborist over the following Saturday. He was a stocky man who smelled of tobacco, with thick forearms and a face weathered by years of outdoor labor. "It's dead all right," he said with casual expertise. "Not safe to leave it standing. My crew could have it down in a day." The cost, he said, would be eleven hundred dollars, a couple of hundred more if Hansen wanted the crew to grind the stump. It had probably been a beautiful oak in its heyday, the man added, but was now ready to become firewood.
Hansen briefly considered the new information that the tree was actually an oak, but then focused on the dollar figure. He and Janet were still adjusting to the bigger mortgage payments the house required. He thanked the arborist and said he'd get back to him if he wanted to do anything.
That night Hansen had a hard time falling asleep. When he did, he dreamed about the tree. In the dream, he was walking around outside the house during a storm, making sure all the downspouts flowed freely, following advice he'd read in the Home and Garden section of the local newspaper. The wind increased and Hansen heard a cracking sound. It came from the tree, which was bending toward the house. A stronger and more sustained gust arrived and the cracking sound got louder. It was followed by a snap. Down fell the tree onto the house, just missing Hansen but smashing through the roof, into the upstairs, where Janet and their two daughters had been sleeping.
He told Janet about the dream in the morning at breakfast after the children had gone out to play in the yard. "It was pretty scary," he said. "The tree was destroying our house, destroying you, the kids, our family."
"Honey," she said, "if the tree is giving you nightmares, we really should do something. Why don't we just get it cut down?" Her tone was distant and uninterested, even condescending. This had been common lately. In the crowded townhouse, they were always near each other, but it seemed that since the move, the extra square footage had put space between them.
"We do need it cut down," said Hansen. "Not because I had a bad dream, but because the tree is dangerous. The tree guy wants eleven hundred dollars, though."
Janet looked down at the newspaper and drank her coffee.
Hansen went outside and played with their daughters. His younger girl, Alaina, was four years old, and had invented a game in which each of them would simultaneously roll a ball toward the other. Whoever could grab the other's ball before it stopped moving would get a point, but they would each lose a point if the balls collided. They rolled the balls in the shadows of the tree's branches, and Hansen began to feel a chill. He ended the game after five minutes, telling Alaina she'd won, and told both girls to go inside, over their protests.
It was mild and sunny and Hansen decided to do more yard work. He began pulling some vines from the ground when he saw a different neighbor, a man who lived in the house next door. The man had a swarthy complexion and dark brown curly hair, and appeared to have gone two or three days without shaving. He looked to be in his late forties, some fifteen years older than Hansen. He had a thick neck, which had a gold chain around it, and he was wearing a tank-top shirt. The man was dragging something heavy out of his tool shed. It was a large bag of mulch, which he hoisted effortlessly onto his left shoulder, heading over to some shrubs by Hansen's driveway, near the invisible, fenceless boundary between his home and Hansen's. The tree, it occurred to Hansen, might be precisely on the boundary line.
Hansen introduced himself to the man, whose name was George Golanes. Golanes was not one for conversation. He continued mulching his shrubs and had little to say as Hansen tried to get to know him. About all Hansen learned was that Golanes was retired from the military and ran an asphalt paving company out of his home. Hansen told Golanes that he worked in commercial insurance. Golanes didn't seem interested. Finally, Hansen brought up the tree. He gestured to his left,toward the tree, as he spoke.
"You know," he said, "I've been thinking it might be a good idea to get rid of this dead oak tree. Considering that it's so close to your house and mine, if it fell it could hit either of our homes. It would just depend on which way the wind was blowing."
Golanes stood, looked over at the tree, and then back at Hansen.
"I had a tree guy over here just yesterday," Hansen added. "He said he could cut it down for eleven hundred bucks. Would you have any interest in splitting that with me?"
Golanes stood silent a few more moments. "I realize," he said evenly, "that you're new to the neighborhood. I've been here fifteen years and that tree was as dead fifteen years ago as it is now. You can't worry about every little thing. Cut it down if you want, but it's on your nickel. And, by the way, it's an elm, not an oak."
"I see," said Hansen. Golanes's belligerence had startled him, and he struggled for words. "I just may do that," he continued, recomposing himself. "I take it you won't mind if the crew goes on your property while they're cutting down the tree?"
Golanes laughed. "You don't seem to know the boundaries here. That tree is not on my property. Not even close. Where the tree is, your lot curves out, toward my house." Golanes pointed, drawing the boundary in the air with his index finger. "Your tree guy won't need to stand in my yard to cut down your tree."
"I see," Hansen said again, embarrassed by the accidental
repetition. "Thanks for the information." The two men returned to
their tasks but Hansen stayed at his for only a few more minutes.
From his office the next day, Hansen called the arborist. He said he would come over Wednesday afternoon and bring a contract. Hansen made arrangements to leave work early that day.
He hadn't mentioned these plans to Janet. She worked three days a week at an accounting firm, and Wednesday was one of those days. Alaina was in day care and Julia, their other daughter, was at school, while Hansen waited in the house for the arborist.
A vehicle pulled up in the driveway, but it wasn't the arborist's pickup; it was Janet, home early. She walked to the side of the house and Hansen went into the kitchen, where he saw her through the window. She was talking to Golanes, by the shrubs. They were both smiling and laughing.
The arborist arrived a short time later. Hansen met him in the driveway and the two of them walked over to the tree, past Golanes and Janet, who stopped talking. Golanes smiled but Janet began nervously inspecting the shrubs. Hansen said nothing to them and they said nothing to him.
Hansen and the arborist stood next to the dead silver maple, or the oak, or the elm. Whatever the hell kind of monstrosity it was. "I want to get rid of it," Hansen said.
"All right then," said the arborist. "Do you want me to grind the stump?"
"No. Listen, eleven hundred dollars is awfully steep."
"It's an awfully big tree."
Hansen stared up at the tree. Of course, it was awfully big, and so were its branches, some pointing toward Hansen's home, a roughly equal number pointed toward Golanes's. There were dozens of branches, hundreds of pounds worth altogether. They appeared to Hansen as a misshapen latticework, one without a pattern, only a theme of doom. "What if you were just to trim the branches? Wouldn't that be cheaper?"
"Sure, we can trim branches," said the arborist, "but the tree could still fall down in a storm right onto your house. What would be the point?" Hansen glanced over to the shrubs; Golanes and Janet were both gone.
"To at least protect us from the branches," Hansen answered, "without us paying so much." He thought some more, first about the tree, then about Golanes, then about the "us" he was talking about. Anger bordering on rage stirred inside him.
"All right," Hansen said. "I've got the solution. That tree is entirely on my property. What I want you to do is cut off half the branches. Cut off the half that extend toward my house. Don't rim them. Cut them off completely. And leave the other branches the way they are."
"You want me to do what?"
"Think of the tree as a clock. The branches that point right at my house are in the six o'clock position. I want you to remove every branch that extends to the nine o'clock position, the six o'clock position, the three o'clock position, and all the other positions along the way. Have you got that?"
The arborist tilted his head and laughed. "Come on, man. Your tree would be a worse eyesore than it already is. I can't do that."
"Why not? It would be my eyesore, not yours."
"But I've got my standards," said the arborist. "I can't do work like that. It would make me and my company look bad."
"I'll pay you fourteen hundred dollars if you do it the way I described."
The arborist said this was the craziest thing he'd heard in twenty years in the business. But he agreed to Hansen's proposal. He and his crew came back a few days later and did the job as instructed.
Hansen came home from work that day and took in the sight of his reconditioned tree. He noticed one slender, low-lying branch that the arborist's crew had missed. He got a ladder and a hand saw out of his shed and cut down that last branch himself, happily descending the ladder with this trophy.
He stood back from the tree, which seemed to be leaning toward Golanes's house. It looked oddly handsome in the glow of the setting sun.
Just then, out came Golanes, from a side door of his home. Judging by his brisk pace, he was riled up. "What the hell have you done with that tree?" he demanded, several strides away, almost charging at Hansen.
Hansen put down the branch and, still holding the saw in his right hand, waited for Golanes, who was shorter than Hansen had realized.
"You can see what I've done with the tree," Hansen said.
"It looks like shit!" said Golanes, coming to a stop three feet from Hansen. "And with the branches left the way they are, the goddamn thing will probably end up falling on my house! You've got it cut up so the weight is all toward my place! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Hansen took a step toward Golanes. "I call it landscaping," he said. "I'm really sorry if you don't like it. But remember, it's my tree. It's entirely on my lot." He stared down at Golanes and squeezed the saw's handle.
"You think I'm going to stand for this?"
"You bet I do," said Hansen. He put his face inches from Golanes's. "It's my tree," he said again, pleased about the deliberate repetition. "And you'll keep your hands off of it if you know what's good for you."
Roger Pincus is enrolled in the MFA program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He was born in New York City and lives in a pleasant, ;friendly neighborhood in northern Virginia just outside Washington, DC. He enjoys spending time with his wife and their three children, and avoids doing yard work.
Copyright 2005, Roger Pincus. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.