Bent Trees
by Evelyn Sharenov


I knew my neighbors by their dogs. I knew Martin’s dog before I learned Martin’s name. Each morning he’d jump into the cab of Martin’s red pickup and ride off with him. Each evening Martin dropped the dog off and drove away.

This was how I adjusted to life in a small town outside of Portland and far from New York City. Acres of strawberry fields directed me home. Blackberries lined the road—enough for a blackberry pie shop to line their glass shelves. My father called daily: did they have markets here, places to rent videos, Chinese food? How to explain that what mattered was the husky across the street, the border collies up the block, the retrievers next door.

Martin’s dog had the dense coat and pale staring eyes of his lupine ancestors. He carried the bleached femur of a large kill in his jaws and thought nothing of leaving it unguarded on his front lawn. His muzzle was gray and he viewed the world through the unearthly sheen of cataracts, but neighborhood dogs knew better than to challenge him. He never barked or howled. Summer evenings at dusk when instinct prevailed and every other dog bayed at the rising moon, he placidly watched familiar cars pull into their driveways. 

The year after Jack and I moved in, Martin pulled a shabby plywood ramp out of his garage and stored it in his pickup. In the morning he set one end on the ground and the other in the truck.

“He’s got arthritis,” Martin said. Plumes of breath created a barrier between us. Bear walked the plank into the truck bed and settled down on a tattered mattress that reeked of mildew and marijuana.

“He must miss riding up front with you,” I said. I’d finally gotten to talking to my neighbor. Small talk, what I wanted, what I missed. Faces I recognized. Nothing of great import. I knew Martin had a wife. She came out of the house when Martin was at work. She offered no hand in friendship, although I smiled and waved to her.

“I think the important thing’s just getting to go along.” Martin scratched Bear behind his ears.

My husband Jack didn’t pay much attention to the day-in day-out of our lives, like who lived next door or across the street or who owned which dog. He was a tree biologist, who embraced rough bark in his long arms, or counted the rings in tree trunks like a teacher counting school kids on an outing. He wept over clear cuts and abused landscapes. I was a nurse at the VA Medical Center in the coronary care unit. I was hungry for the meat and potatoes of daily existence, of someone like Martin.

“How old is Bear?” I asked Martin. I knew that somewhere in our stories were commonalities that would surely bind us.

“I don’t know exactly. The shelter said he was three when I got him. That would make him eight. I’ll tell you one thing. When they bury him, they may as well bury me alongside him.”

It came to me that he didn’t take Bear with him when he went out drinking because he didn’t want the dog hurt if he was in an accident. Martin was grizzled and short with lank black hair. Dark stubble permanently shadowed his jaw and I figured he had a two-pack-a-day habit, based on his cough and the color of his fingertips. His rusted truck had the green-yellow-red insignia of a Viet Nam war veteran on the dented rear bumper.

That winter, Martin left Bear at home when he drove off to work. Bear limped in the colder weather. He watched for Martin all afternoon. He circled the front yard, pacing as the high broad August days narrowed into fall and shortened into winter. The first time I heard Bear howl was during a windstorm, when the winds off the Columbia River raced through the gorge to our small Oregon town, whistled down the backbone of the neighborhood, taking power, fences and saplings with it, discouraging newcomers from unpacking their belongings. The wind rattled the windows, the dishes, my teeth and bones. It pulled a wall of cold in after it.

One night, wild barking sounded above the frantic knocking and scraping. I opened the front door and listened.

“It’s Bear.” Jack’s voice, somewhere behind me, was disembodied in the noise. I flipped on the porch light. I could barely make him out at first, but then I saw him. The winter moon rose high and clear, just short of full. The neighborhood and its secrets were revealed with unusual and unflattering clarity. I could make out Martin now too, a dark shadow sound asleep in the crotch of a leafless tree. I grabbed something warm and ran to him. When I shook him, one hundred proof fumes nauseated me early in an unplanned pregnancy. I had passed an in-home test a few days earlier. Martin opened his eyes slowly, one at a time, careful not to disturb whatever equilibrium he had established. Jack had followed me and stood at my side.

“Let’s get him into the house,” I said.

“She won’t let me in,” Martin mumbled and nodded to his wife’s shadow in their kitchen window, there a moment, then gone. A row of amber glass, empty fifths of bourbon, lined the windowsill. “Then we’ll take him home with us,” I decided. Jack looked at me. I knew that look. Those looks and a word or two were how we communicated when we were both in school. “Well, we can’t just leave him out here, can we?” I turned to Martin. “Can you walk?”

“Not without a net.” He laughed, then sobbed, then turned his head away and vomited onto the street. I looked away and held my breath.

The wind broadsided the tree just then and almost shook Martin loose. He got down, took a step with us and crumbled. We supported him, each of us taking one of his arms around our shoulders, and dragged him across the street. Even as deadweight, Martin was surprisingly light. Jack took him inside, tumbled him into the spare bed in what I figured would be our baby’s room and I went back across the street to see about Bear. He wouldn’t come to me when I called, just stood in the driveway and watched, his gaze opaque but steady as a lighthouse beacon.

A week later, I saw Martin staggering around in his backyard. His worn jeans were undone and he held his penis out like a divining rod, followed it unsteadily as he doused his wife’s flower beds. When he saw me, he quickly zipped his fly and, head down, heel-toed to his truck. I didn't see much of Martin or Bear for months after that.

I was busy, being pregnant, staying alive through winter, tending the woodstove, convinced that if the low-banked blaze went out something terrible would happen. I spent hours stirring pots of stew. I regarded the bleak world beyond my kitchen window and wondered what had possessed me to leave what I knew for Oregon. Jack had put me through school and I promised him his master’s degree in return, and so we arrived, bag and baggage, with my newly minted nursing degree in hand. Bundled up to go to the market, I watched a priestly murder of crows on the iced-over stream out back of our house. They stood in a circle. I overheard their strange muttering over the red heart and broken wings of one of their family. I ran back into the house.

The relentless winds eroded everything in their path. Jack called these the Prozac months. He was preoccupied with work and his presence was something felt more than heard. Any insight on his part was unexpected but when he offered an analysis, however brief, it was mathematically precise. I had long ago learned to trust in his love for me by what he did, not by what he said. And did not confuse his understanding with empathy.

“There must be an Indian name for these winds," he said, soon after we moved to the area.

“How about ‘fucking-pain-in-the-ass,’ ” I said.

There was more outside than inside here in the Pacific Northwest; it was daunting, as if I competed with nature, was judged and found wanting. A neighbor’s wife left her husband who had Tourette’s. I felt sorry for him until warm weather arrived and we opened our windows. Another neighbor fell off his roof trying to remove the stuffed Santa from his chimney after the holidays. He wore halo traction screwed into his skull to stabilize the damage to his neck. Then a woman up the street left when her husband sold their jeep, built a sled and let his dogs pull him around the neighborhood. He’d pass by every day or so, cheeks flushed, hair blown back on the winds, laughing crazily out at the universe. Iditarod Todd, they nicknamed him. A shingle flew off the roof of a home up the street and decapitated a man two blocks away.

I devoured gossip from the women at the local Thriftway market. Whatever else there was to know about the town came mostly from word-of-mouth. When I finally wondered what kept me here—in an outpost of civilization with all its afflictions of the body and soul, where people lost pieces of themselves—this answered my question.

There was a new barber who drove a yellow Harley. She was fifty-ish, copper skinned with seal-sleek black hair–television commercial hair. She wore a prosthetic left eye which didn’t express itself in the symmetry of her haircuts or in her ability to ride her Harley. Her gaze was direct and challenging. No one spoke of the slight tilt of her head when she turned to look at them. The local men were smitten, not just the ones entering or leaving mid-age, but their fathers and sons and grandsons. She never discussed how she came to be missing a left eye, and speculation on this matter was fodder for whispers between those who created stories to account for the barber’s one-eyed gaze. Soon all the men in town were shorn and shaved.

I took my time calling this ‘home.’ I planted a garden. It tied me to the certainties of a patch of land. You planted a radish, you got a radish. Local wildlife had adjusted to the likes of us. One morning I watched a deer peaceably harvest my small crop of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. Unfazed by my presence, she went about her business and walked off into the trees out back of my house.

I made several trips to the hospital that winter—the winter that Martin left Bear at home. Each time the obstetrician stopped my contractions with an intravenous drug that dried my mouth and drove my heart rate up to near-death. What first floated blissfully inside me began to swim, and then stopped and didn’t start up again. I knew the moment it happened. The emergency room doctor showed me the ultrasound. I looked into a void painted with distant nebulae, featureless milky smears that floated in darkness. No human fingerprints; no blueprint for life. The rest was a blur. Jack and I didn’t talk about it then or ever. He just held my hand the whole way home. We hadn’t planned on making children out of our own bodies anyway. I felt hollowed out, like one of my husband’s tree stumps.

I’d been too busy to pay attention to Bear or Martin, but I knew Martin’s wife had moved out. He seemed sober. His five-o’clock shadow disappeared and his hair was styled. He’d been to the barber. Martin was a mason. He was building a low brick wall around his property. Bear watched him, sunning himself, shedding his mangy winter coat in patches on the early spring lawn.

One morning Martin waved from across the street.

“Hi,” I called, then walked over to see him and give Bear a good rubdown. The dog rolled onto his back and offered up his stomach.

“I heard your wife left. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” he said; “maybe it’s for the best. I’m taking medication now, straightening out my life. I never thanked you for taking me home that night.”

“No need. It’s been a long winter. Time to start over.” I wondered if Martin were in a twelve step program and making amends. That evening I told Jack about Martin. He was busy reading the newspaper because I once told him he was out of touch with reality. He mumbled something. I had the water running in the kitchen and couldn’t hear him.

“I hope he’s in AA. If he’s on Antabuse and drinks—. ” He came up behind me. I was a nurse. A lot of my old patients at the VA were alcoholics. I knew what happened if you drank while you were taking Antabuse. And so I worried about Martin. I’d check on him if I didn’t see him for a couple of days, go knock on his door. This early in his sobriety, he would still be fragile.

Martin invited us to a party at his house. He had a new girlfriend and a new brick barbecue he had built that summer in his backyard. It was mid-October. Our neighbors were there, the neighbor in halo traction, Iditarod Todd, the new barber. We brought steaks and sparkling cider. Bear sat under our table, scarfing down fallen scraps. The entire block—my small world—turned out.

I still tired easily. When we left in early evening we looked for Martin to thank him, but couldn’t find him. I stretched out in my new hammock, slung between two sturdy firs by Jack. I closed my eyes; the fiery red sunset played against my closed lids. I inhaled the mixed scents of the turning—a new season as it rounded the sun. I tried not to think about it, but I was overcome by dread at the approach of my second winter here.

Later that night, a commotion of sirens, flashing lights and a woman’s frantic cries drew us to our kitchen window. The EMTs worked on Martin’s body, splayed out on his front lawn for the universe to judge. Martin’s heart had stopped and they couldn’t start it up again. One moment Martin was standing, the next he was dead. They found two empty fifths of Wild Turkey in his bathroom sink.

Jack rode with Martin in the ambulance. I brought Martin’s girlfriend home with me. As the ambulance drove away, I heard Bear howl for the second time. Martin was pronounced dead in the ER.

After that, Bear spent time on our front lawn. I was grateful that he appeared there each day and slept on a large dog bed out back of our house each night. He didn’t exactly move in with us yet. We fed him on our front porch. He watched his old house. Martin’s ex-wife didn’t want him; neither did the girlfriend. One afternoon I fell asleep with him, curled into his heavy coat for warmth in the cool November sun. My fingers clutched his fur—in need, in love, in all the ways you hold a dog in your heart.

Then Martin’s house was up for sale. And then it sold. And the new neighbors assumed Bear was ours. And Bear finally came inside.

 

© Evelyn Sharenov, 2017
For more info on the author click here. This story was read by Kim Bogus.