I counted twenty-four rings from the center to the sappy edge of the stump. Thinking of the boy in the Giving Tree sitting there bent and wrinkled, I laid a hand on the felled trunk and patted it the way you do the cooling fingers of a loved one newly passed away. This mulberry -- a mulberry because of the little green clumps in her hair -- was twenty-four years old this morning when Dad put a notch and a wedge in the base and pulled her to the ground with a chain and his truck. She was disfigured, he said, from the January icestorm, but Mom and I, driving past in the afternoons, had both mentioned that we liked the way she lifted her jointy arms into the air. Now they are in pieces at her sides. The exposed interior is yellow and solid, not like the hollowed white stump of catalpa keeping vigil several yards away. Grabbing onto a tiny arm, I rock a small section of the trunk toward me. Dad warns me that it'd crush my toes were it to slip, so I push it back and ask if we can take it to the house. Not questioning my motive, which is good because I'm still not sure of it myself, he backs the truck alongside the tree, rolls the little log away from the rest, and lays it in the bed. When we get home, he adds it to a row of wizened chunks of trees past lined up beside the garage. I'm not sure if this is a memorial for fallen trees or if it is a monument of remorse, but this new piece looks out-of-place at the end, with her twenty-four fully-intact rings, same as me.
"Might as well look at the road if you're going to drive."
Dad was taking turns looking at the fields of yellow-tops out to the left and glancing at the road. I was getting tired of my side of the truck getting near the weeds in the ditch and then whipping back into the road. We had been watching yet another pile of brushwood burn when he decided we should go to Sebree. "Let's go get a bite to eat," he suggested. "How about that?" So there we went.
He sat in the Subway parking lot while I ran in, twenty dollar bill in hand. The familiar Subway smell smelled unfamiliar in Sebree. The restaurant is only a few weeks old here, and I am unused to seeing national chains in the area. With Mom out-of-town for the week, I went ahead and ordered a Five-Dollar Footlong for each of us, figuring it might last us a few meals. Chicken breast for me, and meatball for Dad. (True to form, when I ordered his, I requested a football.) I took the sandwiches and Dad's change back to the truck, and we headed for the Dairy Bar.
This was more like it. The Dairy Bar has been in Sebree for longer than my memory. We went through the drive-through and ordered vanilla ice cream cones to eat before supper. Mine small, his medium. Before we could get across the railroad tracks to go home, we heard a train whistle drawing close. We were the first to stop at the crossing with the red-and-white-striped arms and flashing red lights, and we both saw this as an opportunity for Dad to eat on the ice cream before having to contend with it and the steering wheel. Waiting for the train to come, I heard a car rev up behind us and pass us. I figured it was going to turn onto the street parallel to the tracks, but instead, it zoomed straight ahead, zig-zagged through protected arms, and trailed up Main Street only a few seconds before the train crossed the car's path.
For about three minutes, railroad car after railroad car flickered past as Dad neglected his ice cream cone to gripe about the idiocy of that car's driver. I'd finished mine, cone and all, by the time the lights stopped flashing and the arms raised again. Coming up Main, we saw the sky light up pink with rattlesnake lightning.
As we passed out of Sebree, it started to rain. Juggling the barely-eaten ice cream and the barely-functioning windshield wipers, Dad grew anxious. He worked on the ice cream and jumped just a little each time lightning streaked the sky. By the time he offered me the last bit of cone, which I turned down, it was raining steady.
"Guess it's raining on the garden," he said. Today, it was cucumbers, squash, and cantaloupe seeds and more tomato sets in the ground. Indeed, they were getting a soaking.
The rain had slowed when we pulled up the long gravel drive beside the house, but the lightning had grown more frequent. He parked around back, turned the key in the ignition, and squinted out the window. "I don't know." There was a bit of distance and a hickory nut tree between us and the locked back door.
"I don't know," he repeated. "They say not to open windows because the electricity can travel." He rolled down his window.
Lightning behind us flashed and turned the building in front of us pink for a split second. Dad was counting under his breath, the fastest seconds I ever heard, waiting for the thunder. When it rolled, it was apparently far enough away to satisify him. I gathered up all our belongings, Subway included, and made him sort out which was the back door key before we made a run for it. Just as we scurried through the door, there was another flash, but we were safe.
"Don't you think it'd be nice to eat on the front porch," he suggested. I couldn't help but laugh. I nodded and took our sandwiches out through the front door to the rocking chairs, and he went to the basement after two cans of Pepsi. While I rocked and waited for him, I watched the hills across the road disappear into nightfall. Except for those few seconds every now and then when the whole sky would be strange daylight before dimming again and rumbling away.