If the two red maples standing at attention on my front lawn could have talked, they probably would have bemoaned how annoying I was, always hanging around. I spent countless days lodged up in their branches for all kinds of reasons, but usually it was to be alone. What I loved most about them was how they offered me the privacy of being able to sit comfortably, and be hidden from view so that I could think about what I wanted to think about and daydream. I spent an inordinate amount of my time fantasizing and daydreaming, mostly about who I wanted to be instead of who I was, which lately, was a constant pressure cooker of emotions. I felt big, and I expressed big, and sometimes it was exhausting and embarrassing.
I was always so much more calm, cool, and collected in my daydreams, so much less emotional. I sometimes hated how sensitive I was and how intense all my feelings were. The hardest part was not always understanding what it was I was feeling. I could feel the tension rise between my parents by just one small gesture from my mother when she walked past him. I could sense the despair when my father’s favorite song came on the radio and he didn’t turn it up, or when my mother needed me to repeat something three times for her to actually hear me. Or, when one of my “friends” pointed out my blemishes on the school bus and said, “It’s like you’ve got a constellation all over your face.” All of these things—everything—pierced my heart like a spear and then simply sat in my gut, heavy.
In my fantasies, I was the unflappable girl who didn’t ever seem to get riled up by anything, unlike the real me who got riled up by everything. In some of my fantasies, I would tell off the older girls who rode by on their bikes and laughed at me and my sister. In others, I would walk by boys I liked and pretend like they weren’t even there. Or, sometimes, I would scream at my parents all of the things no one else was saying. I would sit up in those trees and wait for the day I could be like that, and the trees didn’t tell me it would never happen. They just blew in the breeze and held me in their sturdy arms.
They bore the initials that I would carve into their trunks, of me and whichever boy held my attention at the moment. It frequently changed. None of the boys ever knew I “liked” them, and as quickly as I fell into delirious love with them, I would just as quickly be over them and on to someone else. I felt a bit bad for the trees, to be honest, what with all the carvings into their sides I did, aside from the fact that it also made me look like a slut. I had dumped Jason only days after our roller skating date and I had no idea why.
The two trusty trees overheard the conversations Tami and I would have about Jennifer Stife and the eerie coincidences that, surely, were “a sign.” Of what, we hadn’t quite figured out yet.
“I opened the Bible the other day and it opened right up to page 47!” she would whisper quickly to me.
“No way!” I would say, incredulous. “What did it say on the page?” We would try to decipher what Jennifer Stife may have possibly been trying to tell us from the grave through page 47 of The Bible. If that didn’t shed some light on the mystery, we would sometimes count to either 42 or 47, slowly and with anticipation, and then wait with bated breath to see if anything happened. Nothing ever did. If the maple tree in which we were perched could talk, it would have rolled its eyes and muttered, “Idiots.”
It lent its branches to me when I swung from them and tried to show off for Jacob, who came down the sidewalk on his bike. I wanted him to see how strong I was, and how limber, that I was able to climb the tree gracefully and without any grunting or difficulty, like boys did. Sometimes I would succeed and then watch him from the canopy of leaves to see if he noticed, but he always just rode by on his bike, oblivious to my grace. Other times I’d slip off and fall with a thud, at which point I would pretend I didn’t see him at all and skip away toward my house, unable to breathe, to show him I wasn’t hurt in the slightest. In case he had been watching.
The big Red Maple also hid the awe and fear that Tami and I felt whenever the Hot Dog Man walked by. Neither Tami nor I knew from where the Hot Dog Man came, or where he was going on his walks. We only ever saw him pass by the maple trees on his way into town and on his way back. He stood about six feet tall and was huge and lumber some. Not fat- huge, but just big-boned burly-huge. And he was bald. We would sometimes see him coming a few blocks away. Sitting among the leaves chattering away like one of the birds, we’d quickly lower our voices to a barely perceptible whisper as he neared. He walked slowly and didn’t look at any of his surroundings as he passed. When he walked toward town, he was always empty-handed, but when he walked back to from wherever he came, he always had four hot dogs in his hand. No buns. Just cooked hot dogs, four in a row, and he held them like one would hold cards. Fanned out. He would bumble home and eat them just like that, fanned out in his hand, nibbling them from top to bottom. And we’d sit so perfectly still as we watched him walk by, eating his hot dogs that were fanned out in his hand. At first, I thought it was so weird that he ate his hot dogs like that, but then again, the way I ate my Pop-Tarts was kind of weird too. Maybe The Hot Dog Man and I had something in common. There was something about him that made me want to come down from the trees and say hello.
The real me never would. I was too scared, but the fantasy me did all the time, and I found that he was very nice.
I’d later heard, maybe from my mom or dad, that he lived in the halfway house a half-mile down the street on the other side. I didn’t know what a halfway house was, but I knew he lived there because he needed to, because something wasn’t quite right with him. Did he feel everything too much too? Did he wish he were different than he was? Did he feel anything at all? Every time I passed by that house afterward, I would stare at it through the backseat window and wonder what he was doing in there, if he was just sitting there, rocking in a rocking chair or eating hot dogs. Or, maybe he was hiding behind a curtain and looking right back at me from his bedroom window upstairs, like I watched him from the tree?
Sometimes, I would give him a weak smile and a friendly wave on my way by, just in case he was.