The Old Dead Tree

📅 Published on October 27, 2021

“The Old Dead Tree”

Written by Eli Pope
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 25 minutes

Rating: 6.00/10. From 2 votes.
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Chapter 1

Vernon Hasker sat on the porch swing which had hung on the front porch of his old and now decaying farmhouse for many years. He’d spent many an evening looking at the tree that had started as a small volunteer sapling all those years back. It now was in the process of being reduced to a large disappearing stump surrounded by sawdust floating in the air. He watched as Carl from Ketner’s Tree Service ran the large stump grinder over the oddly shaped wood remnant that was vanishing from sight in a tornado of shooting debris.

 Finally, that damned fuckin’ eyesore of a memory will be gone for good, he silently thought to himself. Nary a single teardrop escaped from either eye, even though the tree had contributed a lifetime of memories. He wanted to picture the pleasant ones, the recollections from the beginning. Like back to the first time, he’d tripped over the young sapling and almost fell to the ground carrying his newlywed wife through the yard, up the four steps of the front porch and then across the threshold of their newly purchased home. Hell, they were both naked as jaybirds before they ever made it through the French doors of the bedroom. Clothes strewn from the open front door, scattered all the way through the living room. A shoe here, a shirt there, bra and panties on the couch and floor. That goddamned tree had seen it all and a whole lot more through the years. The old pignut hickory had seen plenty of love and of course the opposite of such feelings. Arguments, anger, tears brought on by making up. Yes, one would think some of these memories would spur at least the budding of a tear in even the most inhuman of a soul. But not today. Not in Vernon’s eye.

Old hickory seemed to grow quicker in the beginning, through the good times. There were years when either the weather or maybe the couple’s lacking relationship seemed to slow its growth spurt; but then other years, when their relationship was spent copulating like busy rabbits, that goddamned tree seemed to grow several feet higher and thicker through the middle of the night. Of course, Vernon nor Mae ever seemed to take notice or see the correlation until later—after the event. It was a tragedy of sorts. Mistakes made by both. The perfect storm that seemed to brew slowly but explode with a resounding end. A finale’ that could not be undone or ever taken back.

Vernon’s demeanor nor the expression on his face ever changed as he sat swinging back and forth, watching the last bits of their old guardian tree be reduced to dust and mulch.

Carl Ketner loaded up his stump grinder onto the trailer and then slowly swaggered his way over towards Vernon who still sat watching as he pulled the glass to his mouth and swallowed. Carl held a small notebook in his hand. Vernon thought it was, probably the inflated bill of doing his business on a Saturday. “How much this gonna cost me, Carl?” Vernon asked as he continued slowly swaying back and forth on the swing; not missing so much as a single forward and back motion. His worn-out shoes planted firm on the chipped painted boards as he loosely grasped his tall glass.

“Well now, Vernon—bein’ how it’s my normal day off and all….”

“Yeah, yeah here comes the screwin’, I bet I don’t even get a another drink ‘fore ya get me bent over the railing and begin….”

“Damnit Vernon, that’s just wrong in every sort of the word. I ain’t never done you bad before. You know that to be true. Why in hell did you think you needed this work done before a weekday, anyway? Damn tree was pert near dead and dang sure wasn’t goin’ nowhere on such a nice weekend.”

“I reckon that be my business, Carl, and none a yourn. Just give me the damned bill and I’ll get ya paid. I’d offer ya a lemonade—but you’d just squeeze all the good from the lemons and leave me nothin’ but the seeds and rind.” Vernon stared intently as he reached from his seated position for the piece of paper.

“Why you such a bitter old coot, Vernon? It’s hotter an a devil on fire and all you been doin’ is watch me sweatin’ my ass off workin’. Only muscle you moved while I cut up that trunk into pieces was liftin’ your damned whiskey sour to your lips, with a danged old scowl cross your face.”

Vernon slowly got up as he grabbed the swing’s chain with his right hand. “I’d done it myself back in the day, Carl. Wait’ll you turn sixty-five. Ain’t no young man can endure the pain I have.” His legs wobbled a bit until he got his balance. Carl reached out to steady him, but Vernon swatted his hand away. “I’ll get your check. You keep your damned hands to yourself.”

The screen door slapped closed with a whack and Vernon disappeared into the darkness of another room.

Carl leaned against the railing until he felt it give some. He stood up quick and reached down grabbing it with his hand and shook it. It moved quite a bit and he shook his head in disdain. He hollered through the screen door, “I can sturdy these railings out here before you or someone visitin’ leans too hard agin it, and it give way—spillin’ an ass to front yard and bringin’ you a lawsuit.”

A minute or two later Vernon opened the screen door with a barely legible check in his hand. “Don’t you go a worryin’ bout my business lessen I ask you ‘bout it. Nobody got business bein’ here anyway. I don’t send out no goddamned invitations to throw parties.”

Carl took the check and folded it, placing it neatly into his sweat-drenched t-shirt pocket, he wasn’t sure he’d even try and cash it; probably wouldn’t clear anyway. He grabbed his waistband with both hands and hiked his jeans up higher before tipping his straw hat to leave. “I ‘preciate you, Vernon. Your company ain’t always real pleasant, but I do feel for you all these years after Mae disappeared on ya. Everyone in town has feelings of pity too.”

“I don’t ask for nobody’s pity nor thoughts. I asked to get a bothersome tree and stump removed and you done it. I reckon after I stack it, it’ll be alright. Now get on outta here and enjoy the rest your day off.”

Carl held out his hand to shake Vernon’s but all it drew was another cold response.

“What? I didn’t pay ya enough?”

“I was tryin’ to shake your damned hand, Vernon. Closin’ our business dealings as good people and friends do.”

“Well, I guess you better save that for your next friend or victim. Good day.”

Chapter 2

Vernon sat back down and the metal chain holding the swing restarted the same squeaky tune again. With the same blank stare, he watched Carl Ketner’s truck and trailer, which held the stump grinder, pull out and make the left turn towards town. He tilted his head back and breathed out a slow wispy breath as if a truckload of tension leaked from his body. He closed his eyes, his glass of whiskey sour sat on the small wooden table beside him; the ice melting quickly into tepid water and sinking lower than the alcohol in the glass. Another sigh passed across Vernon’s lips. “You can’t haunt me no more now, Mae. Your cheatin’ memory is buried in the ground along with your rotted corpse. And to think I once loved you with all my heart.” His words came out barely more than a whisper.

Vernon had slowly whittled the old pignut hickory tree limb by limb because the memory of that violent event so long ago kept coming back. “Ain’t nothin’ left to amputate no more, Mae. Old hickory is dead and gone forever. Just like you and your whorin’ ways. You can’t come back now and show your temptress body and lust-filled eyes to taunt and intimidate me. That tree is as chopped up as your fornicatin’ body is. The pieces of you and it’s sawdust lay in the ground to mix and melt into the dust and bone you’ve surely decayed into.” Vernon’s eyes remained closed, and the tune of the squeaks from the porch swing’s chains continued. The only other sounds were the ice cubes melting and toppling into the now watered-down drink. Vernon’s words of contempt for his deceased wife dribbled away quietly to a hush as a broken snore began to take the place of the venomous words that seconds ago dribbled from his mouth.

Sawed-off chunks of the old dead tree lay in sporadic piles across his front lawn, scattered about from the violent carnage that just took place. It seemed a fitting metaphor today to the afternoon of carnage so long ago. An afternoon every bit as hot then, as this one was today.

At some point, Vernon must have awoken, and gotten up from the swing, putting himself to bed even though he retained no memory of doing so. He did, however, wrestle back and forth from one side to the other, unable to attain a position of comfort that would last long enough to get the deep sleep his body truly needed. His mind kept him busy in his stupor that resembled slumber. The memories hadn’t left completely just because the hickory tree was nonexistent anymore; having been vanquished by death from his property.

Vernon’s eyes began to twitch, first one and then the other in random waves. His breaths became heavy and full at times, then quieter and more labored at others. He was dreaming. But in his world—this was no dream at all—instead a recollection of the sins from his past. Mae had come back despite the actions brought on this afternoon with the help and efforts of Carl and his equipment. Efforts he’d bought and paid for.

*****

Work was slow at the cabinet shop today. The heat was horrible. It had been for days. Humidity was heavy in the air, so swampy one felt like they were sucking saltwater with every breath drawn. People became agitated and quick to ignite their fuse of bitterness because the temperature was not letting up. Even at home during an evening, the temperature still hung over them in the torrid lower nineties. Breaking points of anger grew from the frustration of the pattern that refused to let up.

The Red River, just off highway ninety-one—was west of the Union Baptist Church and shrinking in its banks because of the lack of rain. This spot of land which overlooked one of the narrowest parts of the winding waterway is where Vernon and Mae settled their little homestead. The ten-acre plot of land with an old white clapboard two-story farmhouse which sat in the middle of the acreage. Land Vernon purchased, so he would be a property holding gentleman; a far better catch for a young lady back in those days than a wandering soul working as a temporary farm hand would be. Hell, Billy Hill, the man in question, could never afford to purchase and offer property to Mae or any other girl, not that he would have wanted to plant roots for too long, anyhow. He may have been a dark handsome man with a chiseled chin and physique of a Greek god, although Vernon never saw it; he did, however, realize Billy would never amount to nothin’ as far as providing a vivacious woman like Mae, anything of consequence. Nothing anything more than a tryst in the bedroom. Mae was a gorgeous treasure. She was far more valuable than just a naked fling-filled romp. A treasure Vernon was not ready to relinquish his aspirations of marrying her. Sure ‘nuff though, he’d seen Mae talking to Billy, and to him she appeared too close to succumbing to those sexual desires of that fuckin’ gypsy who was only out to satisfy his own desires. On occasions he did witness these flirtatious meetings of theirs and it angered him deep down to his core. A hate he never knew he held inside. It heated him up far hotter than the temperature of the current sweltering heatwave. He wasn’t going to allow Billy to taint the girl he soon held hopes of obtaining for a lifetime. Sweat and frustration grew within. He’d put everything he owned on the line and then a hefty loan note from the bank. He wasn’t gonna lose Mae and his life savings to any wandering bastard. He’d by God be marrying Mae. They were made for each other. Some stranger move-in type, come into town and spoil his treasure? No fuckin’ way. He’d kill him if need be.

But it seemed Mae was in love with Vernon after all, just as much as he was in love with her. Billy moved on to some other town and Vernon and Mae married. Life was good. The money was good, the hours were long, but the cabinet shop kept the property payments to the bank on time, food on their table, and a little extra each payday for the savings account. Vernon was on track with his life’s plan. Mae ended up working at the Union Baptist Church which wasn’t a far walking distance from their new home. Her job wasn’t out of necessity; it was from boredom. She wasn’t meant to be just a housewife, not until they had kids.

Vernon hadn’t ever been a Baptist before. Hell, he ain’t ever been any religion at all. But Mae convinced him to come to church and see what he was missin’. The two became regulars every Sunday and it wasn’t long before the preacher seemed to hit it off with Vernon. They became good friends and confidants. Vernon answered the Lord’s call and became involved by volunteering to be a deacon. He enjoyed helping the preacher draw in new families to the flock. It gave him even more stature. He finally felt as if he were somebody in this world and making his mark, building his legacy. Maybe a child or two would be next.

This is what life God chose to give us. A good livin’ with fortune to boot. These were the feelings inside Vernon’s thoughts. Just rewards for livin’ life in service to those less fortunate. Little did Vernon realize what life truly held for his future.

As Vernon spent more and more hours away with Preacher Tommy Gibson, his mentor, his time between work and churchin’ left less and less for Vernon and Mae. What had started out a raging fire in their bedroom, soon began its twist into a single smoldering coal about to choke to a staggering ember left in the cold night air. Their physical world together fizzled and burned out. What made it worse was the fact Vernon never saw it coming. Even though he’d witnessed the spark she’d shared with Billy back before he left those years back, he now took Mae for granted so badly that he never imagined what could take a calm summer’s day, and blindly usher it into a popup storm turned ravenous tornado.

*****

It was hot at the cabinet shop on the day Vernon’s life began to change. Work was slowing down. People were having to spend their money in other ways than buying cabinets. Home sales suddenly plummeted. The heat draining not only their will to spend money, but their abilities to make as much. Prices soared while future inflation caused shadows of layoffs to hang overhead. The economy became tight about the time Gerald Ford took over for Nixon. Cash-money became very tight in New York City, the financial heart of the country. It passed down quickly to people living in the country. Trust in the government became shattered with Nixon resigning under scrutiny and threat of impeachment.

Southern Arkansas on the Red River was part of the country slower to feel the immediate struggle, but trouble was on the move and headed everywhere. The heat was on in more ways than just temperature. Vernon now faced a layoff of his own. He’d just been told by his foreman, John Wilkey, to gather his personal belongings. The goddamned owner and president, Olin Grahm, was too chickenshit to tell his employees. This set Vernon’s mood off-like a bull being stabbed at a bullfight. From the minute the word layoff stumbled and tripped across John Wilkey’s lips, Vernon began his transformation into someone he himself didn’t recognize.

“Why the fuck didn’t Grahm tell us this shit?” Vernon demanded. “I got a house and land payments to make. Fuckin’ Grahm owns land everywhere, cars, retreat home—and he’s gonna lay me off and watch me lose everything while he’s too big a pussy to tell me to my face? Bullshit!” Vernon stormed out with clenched fists, turned a table saw over to the floor as he passed through the doorway to the parking lot. He wanted to go see Grahm himself, face to face. Let the prick know how this would hurt him and his wife, but somehow, through either fate or will, Vernon headed home. He couldn’t wait to ask for Preacher Gibson’s advice of how to handle things. And just as soon as he got home and changed out of his sweat-soaked t-shirt and jeans full of sawdust and grit from Grahm’s Cabinet Shop, he’d go to the church and consult him. He just hoped Mae wouldn’t see the fear of losing everything that flushed his face and made him feel it was stamped into his eyes. Vernon felt rage. It wasn’t the first time, but this was the harshest.

Chapter 3

As Vernon pulled into his gravel drive and up the hill, he parked in front of the detached garage. The driver’s side door swung open, and he climbed out. His temper settled to a simmer as the door closed with a clunk. The side view mirror which had begun to recently rattle, fell to the gravel when the door banged closed. He stopped and looked at it as the now cracked mirror shined a bright shattered reflection in his face as if to goad him with one more thing gone wrong on this miserable day. The indignation the mirror gave him pushed his anger back up and he reached out and kicked the door of his 1969 gold Ford Galaxy 500 with a black vinyl top, a car he’d been proud of the day he and Mae drove it off the lot. His rage had caused a large dent that would now need tending to. He suddenly remembered his job and source of income was now absent. “Goddammit!” Vernon swiftly kicked the door again increasing the indentation in depth. When he saw what he’d done, he threw his closed fist onto the top with a deep resounding thud. He saw the top was now concave from his loss of control and the blood spilling from his fingers.  He turned while his fist remained clutched as he stiffly walked toward the porch. He stopped just short of stepping up onto the first step.

It was quiet. An odd hush seemed to fall over the entire yard. Not a single bird chirped, nor even the slightest of a breeze blow through the leaf-filled branches of the now large hickory tree in the yard. The hickory remained silent as if Vernon’s angered temperament would cause its broad trunk to shudder. And then a sound caught his attention. A distant sound, like maybe an animal groaning softly in pain, but then slightly overridden by the distant squeal of a tire on pavement. Vernon stopped and slowly turned one-hundred and eighty degrees, attempting to decipher where the sound was coming from.

Vernon gazed out to the highway to see if a dog had been hit by a car. There had been several dumped dogs out his way, dumped by the damned townsfolk lately. The sound now grew to become small shrieks followed by groans. He turned toward the screen door, sensing the sound was reverberating from inside. Muffled, but clearly not a sound emanating from the outside as he’d surmised a mere ten seconds earlier.

Vernon slowly took the steps to the porch and reached for the screen door handle, dreading to pull it open, now suddenly leery of what he may stumble into inside. Quick reflection of the times he’d seen Mae and Preacher Gibson share glimpses back and forth. He’d seen what he imagined could be a look of lust between them. He loved Preacher Gibson so much that he avoided believing Gibson would betray him, especially in that unchristian way.

Vernon knew when he and Mae were first married—he’d been able to satisfy Mae’s hunger for the flesh that he saw in her eyes, but now after all these years, he now doubted himself. He’d been busy with work and Mae had remained busy churchin’ with Preacher Gibson. Could it be possible the two could have been sneaking out together on the sly behind his and the preacher’s wife? His stomach suddenly felt nauseous. Now the thought of losing not only a wife and companion but also his friend and mentor on this horrible day, added to the mix brewing in Vernon’s mind. Looky-loo now, what to do, what to do, entered his thoughts.

Vernon slowly made his way to the closed French doors. The entrance to his and Mae’s bedroom. He looked across the floor now remembering the trail of clothes they’d peeled from their bodies on their way to pleasure each other in the bedroom; to consummate their marriage and vows to each other those fifteen years back. Forty-five years old now, his wife almost ten years the younger. Had her hunger stayed potent while his suffered in virility?

The room even looked different today. Not only the fact that there were clothes scattered around again that weren’t his. But as he looked at his home, his mind wrestled with decisions needed to be made. The walls now yellowed with age and smoke from the fireplace used to warm the room in the harshness of winter, instead of the brand-new white-painted rooms when they crossed that same threshold all those years back. The furniture showing age much like the wrinkles which turned his taut skin, loose. The once empty room now cluttered with trinkets neither one needed nor took notice of anymore. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror which hung above the fireplace mantel. He wasn’t as young and handsome anymore. His clothes filthy from a job he no longer held. Big reddish-blue veins bulging from his temples from the pent-up anger this day had brought so far. Nasty sweat dripping from his pores and leaving trails in the sawdust still housed on his skin.

Yes, life was different, and he hadn’t even noticed the changes until this very second. Transformations that had crept past his perception because he was no longer focused on them. His desire for his precious Mae had somehow seemed to wane. He felt as if a ghost who owed him harm was hovering around him, scolding and pointing its all-knowing semitransparent fingers at all the regularities time had brought change to. He felt something dark ahead of him—very dark. His urge to turn away and leave met a call too strong to walk away from.

Vernon slowly opened the door that would expose the source of the sounds of debauchery he’d heard and prove to be what he’d expected. The preacher’s faith was not strong enough to resist the urge to fornicate with what Vernon swore was an angel. An age-old sin that could twist its way into any profession, even one of a man of the cloth preachin’ salvation for all.

What course of action should be taken, what reparation or penance should be collected? Today had already brought so much pain and fear of his future. His losses began to drum up a number inside his brain. His job, soon his home, the car, and now his wife. If he did what the ghost inside his mind told him to do—he would also need to chock up his freedom. He’d surely go to jail even if it was a crime of passion. Time stood still as he quietly remained pondering before the crack in the door opened enough for all to be seen. Vernon quickly glanced around the room trying to ignore the screams and moans of pleasure on the other side of that damned door between them, as the opening became wider. The two cheaters still ignorant of his presence and the fact they’d been caught.

Vernon instantly spied the hunting rifle on the rack above the television. It was always loaded and ready for protection against intrusion, and there was an intruder in his home, even if his wife didn’t see it the same way or share the same feelings about Gibson. His friend and preacher who was causing his Mae to cry out in ecstasy. He turned once again back to the screen door he’d quietly entered. The picture window displayed the sprawling pignut hickory tree with its branches filling the view of the clear but dusty pane. Old hickory appeared to be reaching out, trying to wave him from doing anything foolish—something that could never be taken back after being done. A trigger can’t be unpulled past that click of death. Back and forth his head moved, from the tree limbs beckoning forgiveness, to the rifle taunting his manhood and pride, and then back to the widening doorway where his mentor lay balling his wife in an invasion of his trust.

Chapter 4

Temptation can invade a man no matter what faith he clings to. Enticement to steal a man’s wife or an inducement to kill him for it. Seldom is there ever a man who sees his life being quickly flushed down the shitter, that chose the high road and walks away from being wronged without attempting to right it. I suppose deep down to the marrow of the bone—the nitty of the gritty, Vernon never truly had a choice to make. It was all just a form of stalling and weighing out the reasons when he should have been planning his strategies of how and when to strike.

When that door finally glided open enough to visualize the two fuckers who were wrapped together in their sweaty bodies, all tangled up and bumpin’ their ugly parts together—eyes wide open with nowhere else to go except wider than a hoot owl’s stare. Well, that’s when the look of shock broke their pleasured smiles into one of fear and terror. Truth is, Vernon’s eyes looked twice as shocked as theirs when he saw the man bangin’ his wife wasn’t his preacher after all. It was that fuckin’ wanderin’ gypsy, Billy Hill. After all these years of bein’ disappeared into obscurity. He’d rode back to town to deflower Vernon’s wife and spoil her goodies. It somehow certainly made Vernon’s lack of guilt much easier to accept. After he drew a dead bead on Billy’s forehead, he pulled the trigger leaving a nice round hole in his sweaty head. Vernon felt comfort because he knew nobody round here would ever miss Billy a minute. Now, Mae on the other hand. He’d need to hold off on makin’ her pay on the immediate. He was gonna lay plans out on how that part of the restitution would play.

She’d be stayin’ down in the cellar with the other rats and varmints until he decided his course of action. He tied her up real good with wire and rope and duct tape across her pretty pitiful face. He’d applied that on the quick after she, of course went to blamin’ Billy and tryin’ to say he forced himself on her. Vernon wasn’t always the brightest bulb in the room, but he also wasn’t dimmest. “Now Mae, you know they say it takes all kinds of people believe stupidity like believin’ that line a crap. Well, it don’t take all kind of people to do the crazy shit that you got caught doin’. But the thing is, there are all kinds of people who will do just that, and you showed yourself as one a the ‘willing kind’ to fuck another man. Another man other than the one you married and promised to love and cherish. I’m a willin’ soul too. Just not one of the kinds to forgive your cheatin’ ways. I know you’d say that’s what the good Lord asks of me, but from what I’ve read in the bible with Preacher Gibson…” Vernon tightened the rope around her leg and looped it to the old, discarded iron bed before he continued with a wicked smile. “…Jesus never took himself a wife during his short days spreadin’ the word…so I…I reckon he can’t speak of the experience of how one should react when their wife gets caught red-pussied cheatin’ on him and then havin’ balls enough to be askin’ to do something like forgive her. Cause he ain’t never crossed that bridge I’m walking alone, and it’s a long way down to forgiveness from where I’m lookin’.”

Mae tried to mumble to Vernon. Problem was, he’d already done somethin’ he couldn’t undo, so now he was in “fix it” mode to make the problem disappear. There just weren’t time to be hagglin’ over sins already committed. He smiled at Mae as he turned to go back upstairs, “Oh, I’ll be back, Mae. That you can count on.” As the last step creaked its final sound, the cellar door slapped closed and along with the sound, almost every bit of light in the basement left along with it. There was nothing but the creepy, crawly sounds of pitter pats across the concrete floor. Varmints scamperin’ around the boxes and bed, reclaiming their digs.

Vernon put one body to rest that night. His arms sore from cuttin’ Billy into pieces and puttin’ ‘em in buckets to take down to the Red River. He fed the catfish under the moon and quiet of the night. Nothing but the stars scattered overhead to watch him finish the chore. Vernon supposed Mae deserved to be interned differently. He’d chop her up and bury her parts around old hickory, the ever-growing tree that had seen so much of their lives, good and…not so.

Vernon did make a final decision on how to kill his wife, Mae. He settled on not making too much fanfare over it. He got up early the next morning and brewed himself a pot of coffee and made some toast and mint jelly, Mae’s favorite. He sat on the porch swing enjoying his breakfast and talking to the hickory branches that stretched toward the porch swing where he sat. “Mae wasn’t able to stick around and give me that child…the child I longed to see swinging from one these limbs with a tire attached by a long rope. Breaks my heart how she just up and disappeared after I told her I got laid off. Said she couldn’t bring a child into a marriage with money troubles, said it just wouldn’t be Christian like to bring a new life into poverty and struggle. Breaks my heart to have seen in her in such sad spirits. Hard enough for me, but to watch the woman I promised to take care of all our lives, I’m afraid she’s capable of self-inflicted harm.”

Vernon practiced his speech as if readying himself for a part in a school play until he had his lines down pat. When he was satisfied and had eaten the last crumb of toast and swallowed his last drink of coffee; he got up and walked inside dropping his dishes off by the sink. His hand opened the door to the cellar, and he walked down into the darkness, and picked up the sledgehammer as he walked by. The sound mimicking a melon being cracked open was the only noise made. The light so dim he wasn’t even able to see the look of question or fear she may have worn, she didn’t even mumble a plea of mercy, not seeing it coming.

Vernon spent the day tidying up, taking care of the days business and then made a chicken salad sandwich along with a lemonade spiked with Old Granddad. His favorite. He took his lunch onto the porch swing and began rocking back and forth as he looked out over the freshly dug-up spots around the pignut hickory. He planted the pots of pretty-colored flowers he’d picked out several days earlier from the hardware store in town. He’d hid them in the shed behind the garage. It was almost his and Mae’s anniversary and he wanted to give her something real pretty that they could put out in the yard and enjoy together, holding hands as they rocked on the swing. Just like old times. He reckoned he now enjoyed the flowers a little more than she as he picked up his whiskey sour and sipped. The ice cubes tumbled to his lips as he swallowed the sweet, spiked lemonade.

Chapter 5

The next day when Vernon took his cup of coffee out to his swing, he dropped the cup to the wood slat floor with a thud. He couldn’t believe what he saw. There in front of him was the likeness of Mae in the bark of one of old hickory’s protruding limbs. There was a huge knothole in the middle of Mae’s head. Tree sap was running down over her face. He quickly looked around to make sure no one was there to see it.

Vernon moved faster than he ever had before, headed to his tool shed to fetch his chainsaw. An hour and twenty minutes later his woodpile for winter heat had grown considerably from the logs he’d finished stacking. He sat down and began trying to come up with a plan to keep making his land payments and eat.

Vernon had forgotten that he and Mae had each filled out life insurance policies. In case one would unexpectedly pass, life could continue once the grief subsided. Neither wanted the other to suffer losing their home or the ability to live, should tragedy strike the family.

He smiled, suddenly feeling like at least that problem had been solved. In a couple of hours, he’d go see Preacher Gibson and begin playing the theatrical part of the concerned husband he’d practiced. “Oh my God, Tommy, where could she have gone? I’m worried what she may do.” He smiled an evil grin.

The day went as planned and Preacher Gibson and his wife too were upset and worried about Mae’s disappearance. Vernon would have been a star had he been on Broadway.

Vernon’s day started out much like it did a lot of other mornings now that he was alone. There was an unexpected problem to his plan it seemed. It frustrated the hell out of him, and he was getting weary and exhausted of having to amputate his wife’s vestige regularly from the reaching limbs of old hickory. Every so often there was a new growth in the tree’s bark, the same image of his wife’s head and torso, her head always with a knothole which oozed tree sap from the opening. The cheatin’ bitch was haunting him and keeping him from collecting his due money. How would he make his payments without it? He knew he couldn’t leave the property for long anymore. Someone would see the goddamned tree and then he’d die in prison.

Vernon’s tree was beginning to appear sickly and quite frankly it was now butchered to a point it couldn’t possibly survive if he had to keep removing branches every time Mae’s likeness would appear.

Preacher Gibson set up a fund in town to raise money to help poor Vernon. He was falling behind on his payments and groceries were becoming sparser as he began to wither away himself. Sure, he’d fooled the sheriff and everyone in town to believe that Mae must have either run off with someone else since he’d lost his job or possibly taken her own life. That part had worked to plan, but Mae was still winning, and he didn’t understand why God was letting this happen. “I’m the one who worked ten- and twelve-hour days and then go churchin’ with Preacher Gibson till wee hours, bringing sheep into the fold. All Mae did was try to entice Preacher Gibson and then pleasure a passing hobo until I caught ‘em in the act!” Vernon screamed aloud from his porch to the now oddly trimmed hickory tree.

People in town were beginning to talk about how old man Vernon was going crazy. People drove by and saw him standing on his porch pointing to the devastated hickory and sounding as if he were scolding and accusing it like it were human.

Time passed and one day out of nowhere Vernon opened his mailbox with dread, knowing there was going to be another bill he would struggle paying—an answer to his problems came as assuredly as a miracle would. He opened an envelope from the New York Life and Casualty Company, and inside, the envelope held a check for three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The sum total of the benefit he’d purchased while a like amount was carried on him, for Mae had things happened differently. The enclosed letter explained how the benefit had been overlooked when Mae disappeared but now it had been eight years, one year past the allotted waiting period to collect.

He looked up at the tall irregular trunk of old hickory, barely a limb protruding from its main body. Almost every branch had been surgically removed by his chainsaw because of Mae’s reappearance showing up in the bark. He’d trimmed a piece off here and there almost every week for the past eight years causing neighbors and passersby to question the sanity of the old geezer that lived in the dilapidated farmhouse across from the Red River off Highway 91. Crazy Vernon who yelled at a disappearing tree, piece by piece.

Vernon now felt vindicated. He’d won in an odd kind of way. He’d lost so much of his life and a woman he risked everything to obtain, but he’d now found victory in the form of a rectangular piece of paper. A check. More money than he’d worked his entire life for, but now so old and tired.

Vernon stopped for a moment and looked around. Had he really won? His car had become a junker that barely ran, his home was falling apart around him. From the shingles badly needing replacing to the clapboard siding rotting underneath what little paint still covered it. Preacher Gibson had long since moved away taking Vernon’s short-lived faith with him. He was lonelier than he’d ever been, and he’d practically killed old hickory one limb at a time. It was time to put him to rest too.

Vernon walked inside and picked up his phone. He dialed the number of an old friend he’d once worked with at the cabinet shop many years ago. They of course hadn’t talked regularly or kept up much with each other, but he knew he needed him today. “Hello, Carl….”

Carl Ketner’s truck pulled up the drive with a trailer behind it that carried a large stump grinder along with ladders and chainsaws.

The next day, Vernon walked out on his porch and surveyed his yard. It was no longer shaded in any form by old hickory. The large sentinel was gone. Nothing but a pile of dirt that covered the base of the tree that had once watched Vernon’s life start out with a healthy seed of love between two young lovers. The tree that saw newlyweds run from the car, the husband nabbing up his bride to carry her over the threshold of their new shared nest. The small sapling of that tree which had almost tripped Vernon on his way in to lose his virginity to the hottest red head the county ever knew. The same tree that grew quickly during some years, when happiness spread out to its roots and yet other years suffered stolen growth from weather and bitterness. Old hickory witnessed it all. The worst being the event that changed everything. Vernon frantically running around digging holes for body parts here and there, covering them with the pretty anniversary flowers of every variety that he’d secretly purchased and planned to hide until the special day. A day maybe Mae believed he’d long forgotten forever. No one would ever know now. Old hickory would never be able to tell him.

Sadness overtook the anger and hurt in Vernon this morning. He slowly walked with his morning coffee out to the mound of dirt where old hickory once stood proud and firm. Vernon knelt to the mound and spoke softly. “I’m a broken man now, Mae. I promise you; I did love you. I don’t know what happened in our life to bring us to this point. Hell, I don’t know why I’m still here talking to a damned tree now that it no longer lives. I just don’t feel very good today and I don’t want something to happen without letting you know that I forgive you and hope to God, you forgive me…” He began to brush the dirt to one side until he felt the strong grain of the wooden base that old hickory once was attached and stood firm. The stump felt odd, and Vernon began to brush away the dirt and sawdust more vigorously until he saw something he couldn’t understand. He didn’t believe the sight he was looking at. Vernon strained to remove his t-shirt and began brushing the soil from the center of the grinded-down stump to the outer edges until he could clearly see the gift old hickory had given him. There as large as life, engrained within the wood, was an image of his beautiful Mae’s face. A small hole near the edge of each eye dripped tiny streams of tree sap from each, forming living tears from Mae herself. “…I love you, Mae. I haven’t cashed the check from the insurance company, and I never will. It was never money I wanted from you…never. It was always you. You were my angel.” Vernon felt a sudden sharp pain in his chest, and he reached his hand to hold pressure to his heart. He looked back down at Mae’s image etched into old hickory. After a sudden last gasp, he fell to the ground and his head rolled beside Mae’s as a tear ran into his smiling lips. He looked at peace finally.

A likeness of Vernon’s face began to appear from within the grain of old hickory as two tiny saplings popped from under the grass with a tiny leaf each. They were twisted together in a love knot and sprouted in unison to catch the sun’s rays.

A light breeze blew from the direction of the house rolling a tiny sheet of paper from the porch and onto the grass, then rolled across the lawn until it caught on Vernon’s finger. It was the check made payable to Vernon Hasker, for the sum of three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It clung to his wrinkled fingers until a stiff wind picked it up again and hurled it end over end toward the banks of the Red River, never to be claimed or seen again.

Rating: 6.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Eli Pope
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Eli Pope


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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