The Tree Poachers

Norwood lets the digger warm up in the backyard. He’s never taken it up the mountain, doubts whether it can handle the elevation. Still, once everything is secure – the tool box padlocked, the hydraulic lines bungeed, the four spades on the back collapsed into one another like a giant steel artichoke – he eases the green beast off the lawn, over the curb, each wheel an elephant foot thundering into the quiet. The client had told him, “Be as discreet as possible.” Right.

The kid, hung-over or not, better be ready because Norwood isn’t fucking around today. Four in the morning. Too old for this shit. Four goddamn hours of sleep. Coffee and a cigarette for breakfast. When he reaches Easy’s apartment, Norwood can’t bring himself to lay on the horn. Too quiet out. The sort of quiet that makes you feel guilty even when you aren’t doing anything.  

The client called, asked him to do a job, and that was that. Norwood isn’t exactly sure about the legal fine print and he wants to keep it that way. Easy comes to the door, same clothes as last night, holding a mug of smoking coffee, smiling like he’s going off to camp or something. Behind him there’s a girl climbing into a pair of jeans, long t-shirt on, her back to Norwood. Lucky little bastard. Probably wasn’t a word mentioned about babies last night. Nothing like his night, hearing about ticking clocks, about shitting or getting off the goddamn pot.

“You ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“My ass. Just hurry it up.”

They make an unlikely pair, what with Norwood having said goodbye to forty a few years back and Easy just now squeaking past twenty. There’s something about the kid though. A cockiness, or optimism, maybe a combination of the two. The privileges of youth, the ability to see adventure in nothing more than the inconvenience of paying rent. Norwood waits and when Easy climbs into the cab, it’s dark except for the light coming from the dash.  

It’s a thirty-minute ride to the mountain in a car, but in the digger it takes upwards of an hour, at least. If Norwood gets her up past forty, the washing machine-like feel of the ride turns to mechanical bull.

“You find her at the ‘Mo?” he asks, pushing it to forty-five just to poke at Easy’s hangover.

“Not bad, huh?” Easy says, his face pale, swaying over a mug of coffee. “I also took twenty off Uncle Pat. Big guy scratched on the eight.”

“Uh-huh,” Norwood says, and pulls out a Lucky Strike.

They play softball with Uncle Pat, who isn’t anybody’s uncle as far as Norwood knows. The Alamo is the only bar in town with a pulse, however slight. Norwood still goes about as much as Easy, though he had his last drink over nine years ago, just before he moved to Gunnison. Somewhere after that he’d let himself become a local.

“So what’s the plan? A transplant, right?”

Norwood’s used to this, the stacking up of questions, makes it a rule to only answer the last one asked. “Pretty much,” he says.

“Light’ll be here soon enough,” Easy says and sits back. He’s right. The light is coming, and even if Norwood can’t see it yet, he can feel it. Like a mood coming on.

The digger labors up winding roads, past elk masquerading as junipers, or maybe dabs of burnt umber. No radio in the truck and even if there was, Norwood wouldn’t have it on. The truck’s already loud enough with the constant symphony of gears and rust.

“Uncle Pat actually pay you?” Norwood asks.

“Yeah. Told him I’d send you after him if he didn’t.”

Not many others make fun of Norwood, because of his size and his over-blown reputation, which is based largely upon the time he escorted a rancher out of the Alamo by his ear after the man insulted Deana. It wasn’t that big a deal, but it still went down in Gunny-lore.

“You eat yet?” Easy asks.

“Nope,” and for a second he thinks of asking if Easy did, but he already knows the answer to that. It’s nothing short of a miracle the kid’s awake at all. “The W after?”

“You buying?”

“We’ll see.”

Norwood’s about to add, “If we don’t end up in jail, I’ll buy you anything you want,” but there’s no need to excite the kid.

Ten miles to Crested Butte, the ski resort another three miles up from there, but thank Christ they don’t have to go that far.

“We going straight into crusty butt?” Easy says, a little less pasty-looking now.

“Yep.”

“Whose home is it?”

“Not a home. Restaurant.”

He can see Easy looking at him sideways, then turning away, deciding not to pursue it. Good kid. He’s learning. Let things unfold. No need to worry until you have to. And maybe not even then.

Still dark out, like somebody hit pause on the sunrise. Norwood barely recognizes himself in the rearview. Thick and solid, not handsome, just solid, a shovel-full of brown hair tamped down under a trucker’s hat, caterpillar moustache. His arms on the steering wheel are meaty, veins like worms burrowed into clay. Strong, not scrawny like the kid. Still, he can’t keep up with the girls Easy rakes in, a different one every week, all of them young, pretty. Norwood’s only got Deana now.

“Grab me that,” Norwood says, pointing to a scrap of paper on the floor.

Easy turns on the dome light, picks it up, reads, “Carol’s Crepes?” pronouncing it ‘creeps’ and hands him the paper before putting them back into darkness.

“Don’t ask me. French or something.”

Norwood learned long ago to dumb down his vocabulary. You hear somebody use a word like ‘crepe’ in Gunnison and it’s grounds for suspicion. He once used the word ‘redolent’ when referring to the stink of the bar and got looked at funny the rest of the night.

“I need to do anything special once we get there?” Easy says, scrunching down, putting his boots on the dash, his knees cradling his chin.

“Watch the cables. Keep ‘em clear. Fill the hole after.”

“That it?”

“And keep quiet. The less people know about this the better.”

“Why? What’s the big deal?” Easy seems interested, but not very.

“Let’s just say I don’t think this guy exactly owns the tree.”

“You’re shitting me?”

Now he’s interested. If Easy were a dog his ears would be perked, his ass wagging. He likes this sort of crap. Adventure.

“No, I’m not shitting you.”

“So we could, like, get busted for this?”

“Just act like you belong and we’ll be fine.”

“Can do.” Easy hugs his knees, shivers like he’s cold though the heat is blasting. “Hey, I just work here, right?”

“Yup.”

“So what’s the story? Who hired us?”

“Her husband. Or ex-husband, not sure which.”

“We’re poaching this Carol’s tree?”

“And planting it in her husband’s front yard.”

“And where might that be?”

“Outskirts. South Butt somewheres.”

“Killer,” Easy says, and Norwood knows what’s coming next. “I get paid extra for this?”

“Nope.”

“Norwood.”

“You’ll get an extra foot up your ass if you fuck up.”

“I don’t fuck up.”

“Not yet you don’t,” he says, the town coming into view, something made of cardboard, a stage set maybe, held in the palm of the surrounding mountains. It’s beautiful from a distance, like all towns, cities, people. Beautiful and comical. “Sure Easy,” he adds after a bit, long enough to throw the kid off.  “There’ll be something extra.”

It takes a good twenty minutes to get the digger positioned properly, Easy signaling uselessly in the morning fog behind the truck, an apparition, Christ raising his hands to the heavens, beseeching. The wheels grunt up over the curb, then lurch down, sink into the grass. It’s only once Norwood turns the engine off that the quiet begins to assert itself.

The weight of the digger leaves two trenches half a foot deep, the grass beyond fucked. Evidence. Easy is busy clearing away the area around the base of the tree, tossing bricks somebody put in as a sort of retainer wall.

“Stack them, will you?” Norwood says, and Easy stops tossing them in front of the restaurant, though his smirk is at full throttle. “Thank you,” Norwood says, wanting to clip him in the back of the head with a stray brick.

There needs to be a large enough berth to work in the spades. The sidewalk’s going to suffer, no getting around that. Collateral damage, but he’s already warned the husband. And the telephone wires, that’s going to be tricky. Nothing Norwood can do but hope the branches snap before bringing the current down. He stands to the side of the digger where the controls are, yanks on the hydraulic lines dangling like tentacles from the arm of the digger, and motions Easy to stop with the bricks, to man the lines and keep them from snagging. The digger’s similar to one of those crane machines with the stuffed animals, only more intricate. Easy keeps after him to teach him, but it’s not like the kid’s going to make a career out of landscaping. Once summer’s over, he’ll be back snowboarding full-time.            

Norwood pulls a lever, watches as the first spade retracts. It’s loud, louder than he remembers it being. People have to be waking up, though there’s only the one light on across the street. Too bad, he thinks, deal with it. The second spade clangs, wobbles back and forth before settling itself alongside the other. Three and four follow suit, each taking an agonizingly long time. He thinks of them as fingers, fingers with long, retractable nails. It reminds him of something out of the X-men, like those steel blades of Wolverine’s.

Once all four spades are in position, Norwood sways the giant arm toward the white birch, overshoots it, then brings it shuddering back. He pushes another lever and the hand snaps open like it’s going to tear the tree out of the ground and slash it to ribbons.

“Grab the axe,” Norwood says. “I can watch the lines.”

Easy stands behind the thirteen-foot birch, hands resting on top of a long-handled axe, turning his head every now and then, watching the street. He couldn’t look more suspicious.

Norwood eases the arm forward, closes the spades around the bole of the tree, the trunk squarely in the middle. He walks over, checks to make sure things are aligned, then swings a latch shut, locking them in. He returns to the truck, paws down one of the levers and the circle of drawn spades lowers to the ground.

“Cigarette time?” Easy says.

“No.”

A lot depends on the fist spade; if it slides in unhindered, the others might too. Norwood holds the lever down and it starts off decent enough, there’s that clean, damp sound that means the soil is good, the roots pliable. Easy gives him a thumbs-up, probably hoping for a good-sized root so he’ll get a chance to swing the axe. Sure enough, with the second spade, there’s the bad sound, a jigger sound where the whole arm begins to rattle like a jackhammer. Either Norwood’s hit a rock, or worse, a conduit of some sort, which could knock the electricity out for the whole town. Wouldn’t be too hard to figure out who was to blame. He pushes the lever up, eases the blade out, the black mud clinging like frosting, and walks over to see.

“I’m on it,” Easy says. “Just say when.”

Norwood squats, uses his Zippo to inspect the three-inch root, its skin scraped so only the white bone shows. It teems with frantic insects. Flatheads. Borers. Malignant, but treatable if sprayed with Malathion, the infected trunk wrapped in burlap. Might have a chance if they left it alone, but moving it’s a sure death sentence.

Norwood takes the axe from Easy, notches one of the roots so Easy knows where to cut. “Got it?”

Easy takes the axe, says, “Got it, Dad,” and starts hacking away. 

Dad. Norwood taps his shirt pocket, pulls out another Lucky, smiles when Easy gives him a dirty look. Dad. Every time he goes to the grocery store with Deana lately she stops and points out the kids’ clothes to him, the little bonnets or whatever they are, the footsies with the white rubbery soles on them that he remembers wearing as a child. Not once in a while, but every time now. “Oh, aren’t these cute!” Nod. Grunt. Get me the holy fuck out of here.

Easy finally hacks through, the root hanging, amputated. Norwood sets the blade down again, works it in slowly this time without resistance, the smaller roots snapping like guitar strings. He maneuvers the tree by moving the arm back and forth, leaves falling, branches snapping, so that it finally loosens its grip on the soil.

Two down, two to go. This is the tricky one. He’ll have to come down right through the cement sidewalk, get a clean break so only the one section gets messed up.

“Want me to start it?” Easy says, hefting the axe over his shoulder. Norwood says nothing and Easy shrugs, sets the axe down, leans against the side of the restaurant to watch.

The spade raises and lowers, stabbing at the concrete, chipping away until there’s a crack and the blade sinks through to the dirt. Minimal damage. Good. Almost home free and then they can get into the truck, turn up the heat and shrug off the creepy chill Norwood’s had since they got here. Still, it’s not as dark out now, like somebody’s been quietly unraveling a light bulb wrapped in toilet paper. A few cars are out, people emerging from their homes, zombie-like, on their way to work. Norwood nods a friendly hello to a man passing by as the last spade slices through. The tree pulls free of the earth, hangs suspended a few feet above the asteroid-sized hole they’ve created.

“Start shovelin’. When you’re done, we’ll get.”

“Yes’m, boss,” Easy says and swaps out the axe for a shovel.

Norwood tosses a gunnysack into the truck. No point. The insects are already entrenched. Swaddling. That’s what burlap is for a tree. Fucking swaddling. Deana’s really gotten into his head lately. Sees it everywhere now. Other people’s babies popping out of the scenery, glowing, so that he can’t miss them. He wraps a nylon rope around the top of the tree, ties a knot, feels for a second like he’s strangling the thing, but it has to be secure.

Easy pats the dirt down around the hole while Norwood goes about tilting the tree over the top of the truck so that it’s leaning out over the windshield. It’s taller than he thought; they’ll be lucky to clear the power lines on the way out. He bows it down, ties it tight to the bumper. Hard to see, but they’ll manage.

“All set?” Norwood says, firing up the engine.

“You see the way people are looking at us?”

“Was hoping it was just my imagination.”

Easy gets in, tosses his gloves on the bench seat. The digger lumbers away, Norwood craning his neck under the windshield, watching the power lines, but they make it.

“Why do I feel like we just kidnapped a giraffe?” Easy says, then pats Norwood’s pocket, grabs the pack of Luckys without asking.

Norwood’s about to answer when he spots a woman on the sidewalk, jeans and a yellow ski jacket, long blonde hair, healthy. Like Deana used to look before she went all roly-poly on him. Normally he wouldn’t have looked twice at the woman, stock footage around here, but the woman stops only a few feet away from them and her face, which had probably been smiling only seconds before, is now severe, panicked almost.

“Shit,” Norwood says. “Guess who?”

“Mrs. Creep?”

Norwood speeds up a little while Easy scrunches down in his seat, blows smoke out through the top of the cracked window, most of it billowing back into the cab.

“Way to be inconspicuous,” Norwood says.

“She’s kind of hot, huh? I wouldn’t mind giving her a taste of my baguette.” Easy smiles, lowers the window to let some of the smoke out.

“French fry more like.”

They pass the woman and Easy turns around in his seat, watches her. “It’s just a fucking tree, lady. Re-fucking-lax already.”

Norwood checks the rearview. The woman looks confused, her body cringing, clutching itself. They come to a stop sign, turn right, and head out of town.

When they reach the husband’s house, four miles from the “scene of the crime” as Easy is now calling it, it’s almost six in the morning.

“Where is the guy?” Easy says, holding the tree upright as Norwood orchestrates the levers, begins digging the new home, grave, whatever.

“He won’t be here.”

“Coward motherfucker,” Easy says and spits on the ground like he’s got something to be offended about.

Judicious motherfucker.”

“Huh?”

“No point in his being here.”

“Still think it’s lame.”           

This is the better part of the job, digging a fresh, clean hole. He told the husband that the tree, considering its age and the time of year, had about an eighty percent chance of surviving. With the flatheads, that chance has dwindled to zero. Maybe less. So much for the bonus, an extra two hundred if the tree survived. No big deal. Norwood might be gone next summer anyway. Long fucking gone. Maybe back to Texas.

The last spade slips in and Norwood pulls the load up, dirt slipping through the digger’s fingers. He watches as Easy leans the tree against the truck, then hops into the hole, digs out the remaining chunks of dirt. 

“All set, chief!” Easy says and hops out.

Norwood takes the shovel and drops a few more loads of dirt in. Need to keep the tree above ground a bit so it can breathe afterward. He surveys it once more before motioning for Easy to slide the tree over. They lower it in together, let it rest on the bottom as Norwood dumps in his “loam-roids”: an organic cocktail of peat moss, leaf mulch, and decayed manure. After that, all that’s left is to kick in the leftover mound of dirt. Norwood does all the particulars, makes sure the tree is aligned correctly, stamps the dirt down until it’s solid while Easy uses the shovel to scrape the remnants in.

“Grab the hose. Just get it damp now. Not too much.”

Norwood cleans up, knocking the chunks of dirt off the spades, securing the shovel, locking the toolbox. The tree looks good where it’s at, but then, it looked good at the restaurant, too. Best not to stick your nose in other people’s business. No point in taking sides, who knows what she did to piss him off. Better a tree then a kid stuck in a fight this nasty. There’s that anyway. Besides, soon they’ll be back in Gunny scarfing down eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, weak coffee. Norwood will know the name of the waitress and it’ll almost feel like he belongs.

“Hop in,” Norwood says, and climbs into the cab, knocking the mud from his boots on the runner.

“Will do, mildew.”

The digger backs out of the front yard, the tread marks not half as bad as at the restaurant. That’s when Norwood spots her. A woman driving something like a Geo Metro, some white little bug that stops on the gravel drive about half way up. It’s the same lady from before. The blonde.

“Find out what she wants,” Norwood says as they creep toward the car, stop a few feet in front of her. He reaches for his pack of cigarettes, changes his mind and rolls down his window. Norwood gives the woman a meek wave, but can’t see her face behind the glare coming off her windshield.   

“Got it,” Easy says, and opens his door to get out.

“Eric.”

Norwood,” the kid says back, mimicking the sternness in Norwood’s voice. “Relax, Dad. I can handle it.” Easy jumps down from the truck, heads for the car.

The kid places one hand on the hood, leans down so that he can talk to the woman. He looks like a cop, like he’s going to write her a ticket. Easy’s smiling now, that’s good, the kid’s got a good smile. Good heart too, when he wants or cares to use it. No telling what line of bull he’s feeding her, motioning toward the digger, toward Norwood, his arm extended, palm up, the little con-artist blaming it on him probably. Just as well, make her feel better. Good cop, bad cop.

What would happen if he just floored it? Would the digger climb up over the car like in those monster-truck shows, or would he end up pushing her out into the road? The tires aren’t big enough, not monster enough. God that would be fun, with the woman safely out of the car of course, maybe resting against the tree, eating an apple or something. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. It’s wrapped in one of those rubber covers, all Nascar-like. Deana got it for him. She’d be a good mother. It’s not her fault she’s had a rough life. Especially that last boyfriend of hers. Norwood should have put him in the hospital for what he did to her. Norwood looks down, notices his belly pushing toward the wheel. Hell, he’s getting roly-poly, too.

The kid is squatting down now, both hands resting on the door frame where the window’s been rolled down. He looks like he’s going to take her order. Would you like a coke with that? Maybe a shake? Maybe you’d like to move your fucking car so we can get some breakfast?

Easy is laughing, his face crinkling up like it’s being vacuumed sealed. The woman hands him something and Easy pats the roof of her car, heads back to the truck. The woman’s white arm extends, gives a wave as the car backs down the drive, but Norwood doesn’t wave back.

When Easy climbs into the truck, still smiling, pleased with himself, Norwood says, “Why do you keep calling me Dad?”

“Why do I what?”

“Call me Dad.”

“You called me Eric.”

“I didn’t know what you were going to do.”

“Me neither, but it turns out hubby had an affair with one of the waitresses. He took the tree because she’s divorcing him. Here, she gave me this to give to you.”

Easy hands him a business card with pink roses all over it.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“She wants you to call her. Wants you to plant another tree for her. She called it a Fuck-You tree. Something to get back at her old man.”

Norwood tucks the card into his shirt pocket, says nothing.

“Hey, I, um, wouldn’t mind setting up the appointment if –”

“No dice.”

“C’mon man, didn’t you see that? She was all over me.”

“That tree’s going to die.”

Norwood pulls the digger out onto the main road, brings the speed up to fifty, which is a waste of gas, but there’s comfort in the laboring of the engine. The bucking of the cab. It also makes conversation impossible.

Once they’re back in town, Norwood treats Easy to breakfast, and by the time he drops him off, it’s nearly eleven.

Perfect.

Just enough time before Deana comes home for lunch. 

Norwood stops at the store with all the baby stuff. He looks through what must be the world’s largest selection of tiny pajamas, finally decides he likes the green pair the best. It looks like maybe a lizard or a dinosaur. He’s not sure which. There are bootsies. Footsies. Whatever they’re called. Those are always good.

When he gets home, Norwood crawls into bed and places the pjs on Deana’s pillow. He tries to picture the whole thing, how she’ll start crying, how she’ll crawl into his arms, how she’ll want to know what changed his mind.

He thinks about the tree. About how most everything, in one way or another, wants to take root. About how sometimes a thing can be too fragile to be moved.