By: Steve Carr
A giant oak tree, said to be over two hundred years old, stood alone in a field behind Ulysses Parnice’s property. The tree had been called Old Poor Boy for as long as anyone in the town of Winter’s Horn could remember, although no one knew where the name came from. It was taller than any of the grain silos in the entire county. Its many thick limbs that spread out from its base almost to the top resembled the legs of an arachnid, stretching out and preparing the tree to walk away, or searching the sky to snatch the passing clouds from the sky and pull them into an invisible web. Moss covered many of the lower branches, sheathing them in fuzzy hair-like carpeting. The only reason that Ulysses wanted to buy the field from the town was to claim Old Poor Boy as his. At the town council meeting where the mayor of Winter’s Horn told the council that the money for the field would help pay for needed repairs to its historic town landmark, Pilgrim’s Church, the council voted unanimously to sell the field along with Old Poor Boy, of course. None of the town residents seated in the council chamber during the discussion and vote regarding the sale uttered a single complaint.
Ulysses kept the deed to the field along with several security bonds, nine thousand dollars in cash, and his deceased uncle’s solid gold pocket watch in his safe deposit box in the Winter’s Horn Bank. He intended for the deed to go unaltered for the remainder of his life. He had different plans for the tree.
Thirty years before that:
“Some day I’m gonna sit on the very top of Old Poor Boy,” Ulysses said while lying on his back in freshly mown grass, his hands behind his head, staring up at the clumps of leaves that sat on an eight foot stretch of tree trunk and topped the tree like a disheveled wig. He was twelve years old, his face covered with freckles and his teeth in braces.
Lying nearby, and chewing on the end of a blade of grass that hung drooping from his mouth, Karl Braddock, looked up at the top of the tree. He squinted his eyes as if trying to discern what he was seeing. “I reckon no one has sat up there,” he said.
Ulysses sat up, draped his arm over his Irish Setter, Sherlock, and sneezed. Cutting the grass of his Uncle Lionel’s backyard always aggravated his hay fever, but the five bucks his uncle gave to him to mow the yard up to the boundary of the field where the tree stood paid for lots of comic books, trips to Barney’s Bijou movie theater twice a month, and an occasional double dip ice cream cone with sprinkles from Gracie’s Ice Cream Parlor. He slowly eyed the tree from its base back to the top again. “Ain’t no way to climb it the entire way to the top,” he said.
Karl sat up, spat out the grass and pulled a piece of bubblegum from his t-shirt pocket and unwrapped it. The gum was bright pink and the texture of Playdough, a color and consistency not found in nature. “I’ve never heard-tell of anyone ever trying to reach the top of Old Poor Boy, anyway.” He popped the gum into his mouth and began to chew.
“That don’t seem right,” Ulysses said. “A tree like that is just cryin’ out to be climbed.”
Karl stood up and brushed grass off his jeans. “My dad says when he was a kid they hung old tires from the lower branches to make swings but that stopped when some girl fell from a tire and broke her neck.”
Sherlock rubbed his body against Ulysses and tried to lick the boy’s face. Laughing, Ulysses pushed the dog away and stood up. “Old Poor Boy was meant to be something more than just a swing set.” He turned and looked at his uncle’s large Victorian house. Its white paint glistened in the afternoon sunlight. He gazed thoughtfully at the windows in the second floor, the ones that faced the tree. He would one day inherit his aging uncle’s estate and the house would be his. He spun around when the giant bubble that Karl had blown burst. Karl had gum stuck to his face. “Help me put the mower away and I’ll treat you to a double cone from Gracie’s ” he said.
“Deal,” Karl answered.
After the property and the tree was acquired, Ulysses sat at a drawing table in what had once been his aunt and uncle’s bedroom, but was now his studio. Uncle Lionel died from Alzheimers while in a nursing home fifteen years before, as promised leaving the house to his only surviving relative, Ulysses, who he and Aunt Mable had rescued from an orphanage when he was six years old. Keeping up the house to its previous grandeur wasn’t possible on his salary as Winter’s Horn’s only paid member of the fire department, the Fire Chief. Over time the paint on the house lost its sheen and a few bricks broke loose from he chimney. With large sheets of drawing paper spread out on the table he looked from them to Old Poor Boy. The sixteen thousand he paid to the town of Winter’s Horn for the acreage on which the tree stood along with a large portion of adjoining land took most of the money he had saved, only leaving him with the cash his uncle had left him that he kept in the safe deposit box. He picked up a ruler and pencil and drew the first line.
When his wife, Haley, came into the room she stood behind him and stared at the tall cylinder he had drawn. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Old Poor Boy,” he answered.
She looked from the drawing to the tree. “It doesn’t look like it. Where are the branches?”
“They’ll come later,” Ulysses replied. “This is just the main trunk. A place to start.”
“I see,” she said, but she didn’t see at all. He had turned what had been a guest bedroom into a place to draw, although in their ten years of marriage he had never shown any interest in drawing or art. She patted him affectionately on the shoulder and turned and left the room.
For several moments he stared at what he had drawn and then looked out the window. His Irish Setter, Rocco, was pawing at the dirt where Sherlock had been buried in the shade of the tree many years before. Ulysses leaned over the table and raised the window. “Get away from there, Rocco,” he yelled.
The dog looked up and then returned to scratching in the dirt. Sherlock had been given a proper burial; he was placed in a pine box that Karl built and buried six feet down. Rocco would never reach him, but Rocco’s frequent return to that spot to dig annoyed Ulysses and gave rise to questions that Ulysses had no answers for. Why dig there?
When Ulysses was a small boy:
“Where are we going?”
“You ask too many questions,” Sister Theresa told him as she pulled Ulysses down the long corridor, tightly gripping his hand. He winced in pain but didn’t cry out. He liked the nun although at times since his recent arrival to the orphanage she was impatient with him. The echo of the other children inside their classroom reciting Bible verses trailed behind him. Outside of the office of Sister Gabriella, Sister Theresa lifted him from his feet and placed him on a wooden bench and then went into the office. He heard several voices coming from inside the office, all muffled. There was a brass plate on the door that had a word that began with A, but he didn’t know what it spelled. Swinging his legs, he gazed up at the ceiling, following the cracks in the green paint that spanned out like creeping vines.
It was going to be his sixth birthday the next day and he hoped that whoever was in the office with Sister Gabriella was planning something special just for him, maybe taking him back home. They had made a mistake keeping him in the orphanage. He had parents that he was certain missed him, if only the nuns would listen to him each time he told them that.
When the door opened, Sister Theresa stepped into the hallway and said, “Come.”
He slid off the bench and followed her into the office. Sister Gabriella was seated behind her large desk, her hands folded on its top. A man and woman, seated in chairs in front of her desk turned and fixed their eyes on him, appraisingly.
“He’s the spitting image of my brother when he was that age,” the woman said.
Sister Theresa placed her hand on the middle of his back and ushered him closer to the couple.
The woman rose from the chair, knelt down, and said, “I’m your Aunt Mabel and this is your Uncle Lionel.” She pointed at the man who stared at him, an inscrutable expression on his face. “You’re going to come live with us.” The lilac perfume that she wore hung in the air around her like an invisible fragranced cloud.
“I want to go home,” Ulysses said.
“Don’t be ungrateful,” Sister Theresa admonished him. “This is your family.”
“I want my mom and dad,” he cried. Tears began to stream down his cheeks.
Uncle Lionel got out of his chair and knelt down next to his wife. “There’s a tree near where we live that almost reaches to heaven,” he said. “It might be the tallest tree anywhere and you can climb it whenever you’d like. How does that sound?”
Ulysses sniffled. “Can I build a treehouse in it?” he asked.
“Maybe, someday,” Uncle Lionel replied.
The treehouse takes shape:
Within weeks the walls of Ulysses’s makeshift studio was covered with sketches and drawings of the tree, most with detailed renderings of treehouse units stacked one atop the other, expanding out onto the branches, and winding around the trunk. Staircases and rope bridges linked the units where direct access wasn’t possible. Measurements, numbers and notes were scribbled alongside each rendering. He stopped going to the fire station in town, doing his job as Fire Chief from home.
“But why a treehouse?” Haley asked him.
“It will make Old Poor Boy complete,” he answered.
“Isn’t a tree already complete, just as God intended?” she said.
At night when the tree was lit by moonlight, he sat at the drawing table with the window open and imagined he could hear it breathing. On windy nights, dancing shadows cast by the movement of the branches gave the impression that the tree was alive in a human way and that it was blood that coursed through its wood and not sap.
He hadn’t decided entirely on the design he intended to use before he began ordering lumber and nails from the Winter’s Horn Lumber Yard, although his rendering of it and the supplies needed to build it, allowed for some last-minute alterations. Truckloads of boards arrived over the course of a few days, emptying the wood onto tarps that Ulysses, with Karl’s help, stretched out all around Old Poor Boy. All of the activity sent Rocco into a frenzy of wary excitement; it stayed close to Ulysses but its body and tail was in constant movement.
With the arrival of everything that had been ordered to build a treehouse that began at the lowest limbs and reached to the very top, the two men celebrated the beginning of construction by buying ice cream cones at the convenience store in Winter’s Horn. Gracie’s Ice Cream Parlor had closed down years before after health inspectors found rat droppings in the bags of sprinkles that Gracie added to almost all cones. They sat on the steps of the Pilgrim’s Church and watched the traffic go by as they ate the ice cream.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Karl said, “but what are you going to do with the treehouse after it’s built?”
“Do?” Ulysses replied, bemused. “Sit in the top unit at the top of the tree and think about all of the things I could have done with my life, but haven’t. I once wanted to travel the world, meet famous people, become somebody.”
Karl took two licks of ice cream leaving a deep groove in the white swirl. “Funny about how we go about making decisions about life, ain’t it?”
With every spare moment the two men had they built Ulysses’s treehouse using the entire nine thousand dollars in Ulysses’s safe deposit box and selling Uncle Lionel’s watch for eight hundred dollars along with selling a genuine pearl necklace Aunt Mable had left him that he had given to Haley, to pay for the lumber, electrical wiring and other supplies. As the treehouse wound higher and higher around the tree, more and more folks from Winter’s Horn and the entire county came to see it, some having picnics while watching Ulysses and Karl busily saw and hammer late into the evening.
Just as the roof was completed on the last unit that rose above the top of Old Poor Boy, dark clouds filled the twilight sky. Ulysses turned on the lights that had been installed in every unit, causing a collective gasp of admiration and a great deal of clapping from the hundreds of onlookers who turned out to watch the completion of the treehouse. Their awed reactions varied.
“It looks like a giant Christmas tree.”
“It’s something out of a fantasy book.”
“I bet there’s nothing like it in the entire world.”
When the crowds went home and Karl climbed down, got in his truck, and drove away, Ulysses sat on the floor of the top unit, thought about his parents, and sobbed.
It wasn’t until he graduated high school that Ulysses found out what happened to them. Before finding Ulysses at the orphanage, Uncle Lionel and Aunt Mabel received a letter from an attorney in Philadelphia. The letter was brief, but explained that Ulysses’s father and mother, both attorneys with potentially promising careers ahead of them, had run into numerous legal and financial difficulties and had taken their own lives. Mabel and Lionel hadn’t seen Ulysses since shortly after his birth. The letter gave no explanation as to what his parents had done with Ulysses.
With the help of private detectives, the boy was found safe at the orphanage.
Wind rattled Ulysses and Haley’s bedroom windows. Streaks of lightning crossed the sky, momentarily filling their bedroom with flashes of light. Ulysses got out of bed and looked out at Old Poor Boy. As a flash of light illuminated the treehouse he suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to connect the lightning rod to the wire that would carry the electricity to the ground if the rod was struck. It seemed like an easy mistake to make, that anyone could make, even a Fire Chief. He quickly reassured himself that if the rod or treehouse was struck by lightning it would be unlikely to catch on fire since most of the lumber was treated with fire retardant. Nevertheless, he glanced up at the sky wishing that the forecasted rain would begin to fall. It had been a long, hot summer and Old Poor Boy was dry and thirsty. He got back into bed and put his arm around Haley and fell asleep just as Rocco shifted his position at their feet.
A short time later when a bolt of lightning struck the lightning rod causing sparks to fly from it to the leaves and branches of Old Poor Boy, no one witnessed it. The tree quickly caught fire, the flames spreading from branch to branch fanned by the wind, engulfing the treehouse, burning the untreated lumber first and more slowly setting the treated wood afire. The burning wood from the treehouse intensified the fire that burned the tree, and so the cycle went from the top of the tree to its base.
It was Rocco’s barking that awakened Ulysses and Haley. By the time they saw the burning tree and treehouse there was nothing that Ulysses could do to save them. He sounded the alarm for the Winter’s Horn volunteer fire fighters. They and the rain arrived at the same time.