Domestic Bliss 

From her kitchen window, the gnarled elm tree in the next-door back yard looked as if it might topple over at any time. Leaning toward both houses, its lower branches hovering just above a tangle of power lines, the old giant stood bare and lifeless in the winter cold.

In her own yard, two fat squirrels dangled from the expensively stocked birdfeeders, stuffing their cheeks with sunflower seeds. She had planted the birdfeeder pole outside the kitchen window when she first moved to this house, imagining a morning cup of coffee and a choice view of delicate winged creatures fluttering down for a bite.

The move had been difficult but she loved the new house, at least the warm inside of it. The neighbors on both sides were couples with young children. She was embarrassed that even though she had introduced herself to both mothers, she could not remember their names.

Being a good neighbor had once been a point of pride and satisfaction. Hers had been the door that was always open, her kitchen the gathering spot of neighborhood mothers who talked and talked while the kids ran in and out. But her children were older now and most days she left for work early in the morning, returning after dark, well past visiting hours.

Not seeing neighbors for days was normal. It was not unusual in this or any other neighborhood in America to not see people at all except those behind glass in cars passing by.

It was Sunday and a long day at home lay ahead. As the morning passed, the day turned unseasonably warm for January. She wandered out back and tossed corn cobs at the squirrels. From the yard next door, a high-pitched voice squealed, "Hi!"

A blond-haired boy with chapped pink cheeks sat at the bottom of the leaning tree, jabbing at the roots with a stick. His short toddler legs stuck straight out in opposite directions.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'm making beef," he said, stabbing at the dry bark. "I've got wood."

"You're not going to eat it are you?" She glanced up at the brittle branches and the power lines, naked and vulnerable.

"I would," he said, chomping like a dog and laughing at her pop-eyed, feigned alarm.

A mother in gardening gloves came up and ruffled the hair on the top of his head. The two women talked about spring and seeds, grass and wildflowers, the dry climate. The warm day was a tease, they agreed. It was January after all and cold would soon return.

She made a mental note to call the landlord who owned the house next door. That tree needed to come down. And what was her neighbor's name? She could not remember.

She went inside and lay down for a nap in a sunny upstairs bedroom. Fine strands of cat fur danced in still shafts of air, backlighted through the slats of the Venetian blinds.

In her dream, she was weightless, climbing in the high, thick branches of an ancient magnolia tree. From her perch she could see an entire block of neighboring houses. The girl in the dream moved through the treetop like a cat, her toes and fingers gripping the rough wood.

The woman awoke and hung on to her dream, repeating it. She smiled, remembering a day just like the dream when she and her 16-year-old boyfriend had spent an afternoon climbing to the tops of massive magnolias on the lawn of the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis. A summer day. Dares to go higher. Kisses shared in the crooked arms of a fine old tree, 30 feet above the ground. Disembodied voices, yelling at passersby on the ground below.

For a second, she lost her breath. Then she dragged herself up from the nap and away from the memory. The day would be gone. There were things to do. She returned downstairs, gathering up laundry along the way.

She walked to the kitchen window and sipped at a glass of water. Her eyes followed the power lines to the crooked tree next door. Thin shouts trickled through the air. In the tree's giant crotch, sheets of cardboard, a ripped off plastic door, an old window screen. Against its trunk, a ladder. In its arms, a boy and a girl, brother and sister, dispatching orders to others below.

At her birdfeeder, a woodpecker, its head intricately flecked black, white and red.

She laughed. Who did she think she was to imagine bringing down a tree? It would come down, but in its own good time, power lines be damned. She walked outside into the late afternoon sun and waved at the kids next door.


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