ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And in this part of the program, we have a new work of fiction. It's by Chris Offutt, who's written several books and a pair of memoirs about his native Kentucky. He returns there in this story, which is titled "A Good Pine." In it, a young girl growing into adulthood, enlists her grandfather's help in getting the perfect Christmas tree for her class at school. Here is Chris Offutt and his story, "A Good Pine."
CHRIS OFFUTT: Every afternoon, he waited on the porch for his granddaughter to come home from school. Lucy walked the path he had forged through the woods surrounding their house. The trail ended at the yard like a creek feeding a pond and he watched the tree line for the faded yellow of her coat.
Five years ago, a coal truck had nudged his daughter's car over a cliff. The car landed upside down in a dry creek. She and her husband had departed life in less time than it took for a leaf to drop from a tree. Lucy had lived with him ever since.
He was a father at 15, a combat veteran at 20 and a grandfather by 35. At age 50, he was widowed. The seasons had carved furrows in his face, turning his limbs to muscled tools covered by leather. His hair never turned gray or fell away, but remained thick and black, as if his genes had bred a permanent hat.
He had never really learned to live but was adept at getting by, standing fast, holding ground. He rarely changed expression.
The infrequent visitor to his small house at the head of the holler often mistook the old man's countenance for inattention or stupidity, but they were wrong. He simply wore an armor of his own creation.
Lucy emerged from the woods followed by her dog. The coat she wore was too big but protected her against the December chill. Something vague inside the old man glowed briefly like the final ember of a dwindled fire. Lucy trudged toward the house followed by her dog. Behind them, the trees were empty of leaves. The bare branches were like a fur trim on the blue sweater of sky.
At 12, she was still mostly girl, suddenly running thin and exuberant across the patchy grass. She raced past him into the house to turn on the TV. Cable television had come 20 years ago, then the mushrooming of satellite dishes. But the old man prevailed with an antenna atop a steel post lashed to a hickory post. He gripped the pole and waited.
"It's on," Lucy called. "But fuzzy."
He turned the pole in tiny increments to improve the TV's picture.
"Wait," she yelled. "No, no. Back up."
He gave the pole a slight reverse.
"Okay, Papaw," she said. "That's good. That's good."
He released the metal pole and blew into his palms. Gloves he reserved for serious work, not this daily ritual of drawing television reception for her favorite show, "Mr. Cartoon."
They had begun this when her parents were still alive. He believed that maintaining simple traditions would help her accept the terrible loss. As Lucy grew, she had abandoned his lap to sit beside him, then gradually migrated toward the other end of the couch, where she now sprawled with her shoes off. He joined her, sitting heavily on the worn cushion.
"I saw him today," she said. "We had a field trip to town and saw Mr. Cartoon for real. He did some magic tricks and showed Captain Future. It's from Japan and everything. I liked it a lot. Mr. Cartoon looked short, but it was really him. I could tell. He wore the striped coat and them sunglasses like he always does. Then he asked for questions and guess what, Papaw, he picked me. So I asked him why he always wore sunglasses. He said it was because if he didn't wear them, someone would ask why he never wore them. That didn't make sense to me, but then he gave me an autographed picture of himself. Want to see it?"
She withdrew the photo from a math book for his nodding admiration. Mr. Cartoon came on the screen and Lucy stared intently, as if seeing a lost relative returning for a holiday visit. She laughed at the cartoons and he arranged on his face an expression he knew from long experience would pass for a smile.
Television was a habit that had never adequately fastened to him. It reminded him of a campfire, steady motion that never got anywhere. He had learned not to look directly at a fire because the brightness dulled his vision and he wondered if TV was the same.
The cartoons ended and Lucy asked if he was ready.
"For what?" he said.
"The tree, Papaw. Did you forget? I have to take it to school tomorrow."
"Put on some work clothes," he said.
The last week before Christmas break, each classroom at Lucy's grade school decorated a tree with gewgaws the students made from paper plates. Bringing in the freshly cut tree to school was an honor typically granted to the older boys. Lucy's brother had performed this task for many years, but last summer, he'd joined the Army. Lucy had told her grandfather she wanted to be the first girl in her school to supply a tree.
He hadn't forgotten so much as simply set the chore aside because the handle of the ax was broken. He had nailed the split wood and wrapped wire around the crack but the handle had finally snapped and he had neglected to replace it.
The family hatchet had been missing for some years. Lucy's brother had lost it in the woods trying to tomahawk it into a maple. The old man went outside and walked across the yard. A rabbit watched him without motion. The grass gradually gave out to clumps of fescue mixed with horseweed, then an advance guard of softwood saplings steadily encroaching from the heavy woods.
Lucy joined him, wearing her brother's clothes. A cardinal cut a line of red low in the brush.
"It has to be a good pine," she said. "About yea high. And the bottom has to fit in a bucket of creek rock. It'll be my job to water it everyday. The fourth graders forgot once and all the needles turned brown and fell off. Their tree was just a big stick. Some of them were crying and everything. They're just a bunch of babies. Right, Papaw?"
Long lines of lights tinged the air golden, thick as syrup. As the sun dropped over the high horizon, a shadow cloaked the slope.
"Pine likes high rocky places," she said. "Maple and willow are by water. Hardwoods are on the shade side of the hill. Same with morels and ginseng. A lot of money in 'seng. Don't never pick the little ones."
He looked at her quickly, surprised to hear his own words echoing back. He wondered if the little knowledge he possessed was worth imparting to a child entering a world so foreign to his own, where to seek the hidden bounty of the woods, which timber was best for kindling, how to fashion a gourd into a dipper.
When he was a kid, a neighbor's house had burnt down and he had culled the ashes seeking nails. Now nails were sold in gleaming boxes at a Wal-Mart 15 miles away by the interstate, a building that overwhelmed him with its vast space and array of goods, most of which he would never need.
Family owned stores in town with better merchandise had all slowly closed, replaced by taverns and flea markets. He had heard it called development, but all it really meant to him was new signs in old places.
"Got to be careful with poke," Lucy said. "Eat the leaves and root, but the berries make you sick. They hain't good for nothing but turning a possum's butt red."
"Don't say hain't, Lucy," he said. "It's ain't."
"That's a big 10-4, Papaw." Her laughter jingled in the air and seemed to linger as if the old man could see the sound.
He couldn't recall the last time he had laughed or cried. Both came from the same well with different buckets, but his water table had dropped forever, the spout long sealed shut.
A fat grey squirrel skittered through dry leaves that formed the forest floor. He slowed his pace, veering away from the particular pine he had in mind to see if Lucy would find it on her own. Over the years, he had tried to help this tree by clearing the surrounding ground. Weeding the wilderness was an endless task, but it was the first pine to grow near the house. His protection had allowed it to thrive.
He enjoyed its steady green in winter. He would prefer to leave the pine alone in the woods, but each day, he felt less useful to his granddaughter. He couldn't help with homework, braid her hair or teach her to dance. But he knew where the good pine tree was.
"Look," Lucy said, "I found one, I found one, I found one." She stood before the ramshackle tree. One side of its limbs were stunted from proximity to a grove of (unintelligible). "It's perfect," Lucy said. "It'll be the biggest one ever. They'll see then that a girl can get a tree, won't they, Papaw? I am sick and tired of them boys acting like they're the only ones that know anything. This tree will hush them up. Do you think we can get it?"
She pushed through overhanging lace of limbs and circled the pine, praising its good points. He squatted, unfolded his case knife and pushed the blade into the dirt below the tree. The crust was hard, but the deeper earth was soft. The last frost hadn't frozen the ground.
"What are you doing, Papaw," she said, "digging it up?"
He stood, pine needles scratching his face, and slipped the knife in his pocket. Lucy trailed him through the woods and across the yard where he started his truck. She sat beside him as he backed across the scanty grass. Her chatter was a steady sound, customary and ignorable as the rise and fall of cicadas humming in June. He parked at the tree line and attached a grade-30 tow chain to the truck's rear bumper.
He knew that hooking it to the chassis would be better, but the brush was high and he couldn't see well beneath the truck. He walked to the pine tree, looped the rusty chain around the trunk, and locked it with a half-inch grab hook. Pines were weak as poplars, first to snap in high wind. The truck would snatch the tree from the woods, slick as breaking a stick.
"Stay off to the side," he said to Lucy. "That tree might buck." In the truck, he pressed the foot feed to rev the engine, shifted into first and popped the clutch. The truck shot forward. He felt the quick drag as the chain went taut. There is a sound of ripping metal, and the truck pulled hard to the left and stalled.
His wrists throbbed from the steering wheel's sharp yank. He got out of the truck. A scar of light sliced the sky above the hill. Lucy was standing safe on high ground. The bumper lay in the yard, still fastened to the chain, the bolts jerked free of the truck's old body.
"You can fix it," Lucy said. "Can't you, Papaw? You can fix it."
The woods cocooned them in shadows darker than the sky. But he walked directly to the tree as if traversing his house with the lights out. He'd never understood why people were afraid of night since everything was still in the same place. Nothing changed, except the air turned black.
The pine remained upright, slightly bent. The earth, humped from the root balls, strained and toward the surface. The crust of frost-hardened dirt was cracked like ice. The young pine was tougher than he'd thought.
"I don't care about this old tree," Lucy said. "Another one is just as good. We can get another one."
He returned to the house, determined now to get that pine. Lucy followed like an eager pup. He went inside and pulled the 20-gauge shotgun from his closet. It wasn't loaded, but he broke the gun down and checked the breach, a habit he maintained the same as cleaning and oiling the weapon once a month. He selected 10 plastic shells containing number four birdshot. He left the house, grateful that Lucy's incessant yammer had halted at the shotgun's appearance.
A whippoorwill called. The sky still held stands of sunlight filtering over the hill and through the treetops. He wondered if he should teach her gun safety. The transmission of certain knowledge required a lineage of men. But he was in charge of cooking now, cleaning and raising a child, matters he considered the sole provenance of women.
He kept Lucy fed. He made her bathe, brush her teeth and wear clean clothes. Beyond that, he was at a loss. The few times he gave attention to the future, he felt a deep apprehension over her looming transition to a woman.
They lived in a world where you better get it right the first time, and he didn't know what advice she might need. All the women he had ever known married someone nearby and bore children. He had always assumed Lucy would do the same. But young people were moving away now. First, a trickle, but then in droves. Paving the dirt roads made it easier for them to leave the hill.
He knelt beside the pine and ordered Lucy to stand well behind him. He loaded the gun, aimed it a foot from a tree trunk and squeezed the trigger. The sudden blast silenced the woods, splintered the bark, scattered into the dark. The echo bounced off the hillside as if someone else had fired down the holler. He ejected the spent shell, inserted another and fired again. The smell of gunpowder blended with pine scent.
He worked methodically, circling the tree, double checking Lucy's position, firing a shotgun at an angle to gnarl the trunk. The seventh round shifted the tree off its base one long strip of inner meat peeling back like a tether mooring the pine to earth. It swayed slightly before toppling into the buoyant brush. He began retrieving the shredded plastic shells from the ground.
"Ouch," Lucy said, "they're hot. These are hot."
Jut the metal ends, he thought, but didn't speak, believing that she needed to learn on her own. The sun lay deep behind the western hill. The dim light of dusk evaporated as night's arrival transformed the shade to the thicker darkness. He unthreaded his belt from his pants, buckled it around the tree and wrapped it once around his hand. He gave Lucy the empty shotgun.
"Don't let that touch the ground," he said.
"Like the flag," she said, "right?"
The weight of the soft wood was easy to move, but its branches snagged the underbrush, reluctant to leave the woods. He shifted sideways to angle through gaps, his mind enveloped by labor, his body working on its own. He stepped into the starlit yard and gasped for breath, the sweet scent of distant wood smoke swirling in the air. The tree was bigger than he'd estimated, nearly eight feet tall.
Small pellets were lodged in the ragged stump, oozing sap like a wound. He took the shotgun from Lucy, checked the breach, and carried it in the house. He was suddenly very tired. His body was damp with sweat inside his clothes. He filled two glasses with tap water and gave one to Lucy. She drained it quickly, then burped and laughed. He drank another glass. The water was drawn from a well fed by a limestone spring cold enough to jar his teeth from their sockets.
He'd always felt lucky that he loved the taste of water.
"That tree is perfect, Papaw," Lucy said. "It's the best one ever. Do you think I can take it in by myself? It looks heavy. We'll need a washtub full of rock, not a little old bucket. I'm going to make a star for the tippy-top. That was so loud. I still can't hear good from your shooting. I'm hungry."
He made grilled cheese sandwiches with a slice of fried bologna. His shoulder ached from the shotgun's recoil. They ate together at the small table. Lucy seemed happy to him. She washed the dishes while he went outside to gather the chain and bumper from the yard. He threw both in the truck. Tomorrow morning, he would drag the pine through the edges of woods beside the school. Then, he'd let Lucy pull it the rest of the way so she could arrive in triumph.
The Milky Way smeared the clear night sky. A quick gust chilled his cheek, rustling an oak leaf still clinging to a lower limb. All of the other leaves had fallen away. It would endure the winter, remaining part of the tree until pale buds pushed it aside in spring. Only then would the last oak leaf join the soft mulch and earth.
When he was young, he'd heard the old folks say the world had passed them by. But he didn't feel that way now. It seemed, instead, that he was perched on a high ridge, watching the world compete for passage into a narrow tunnel. For nine years, he had watched that pine tree grow, the only one near the house, never giving any thought to its outcome - shining briefly in a classroom corner before getting cast in the creek, brown needles swept by swift water, silver strands of fake icicle clinging to the limbs.
He went in the house and turned on the television to watch the news. He sent Lucy to bed during a commercial break before the weather. She glared at him, stomped the plank floor and slammed the door. He remained mute and immobile on the couch. The weatherman had discarded the sunglasses and striped coat of Mr. Cartoon, but his voice and posture remained the same.
The adult world had already revealed too many secrets to Lucy. Eventually, she'd learn the real reason Mr. Cartoon wore sunglasses. But not now. Not yet. Tonight, the old man could still protect her as best as he could.
SIEGEL: Chris Offut, reading his story "A Good Pine." He's the author of five books, including, "Kentucky Straight" and "The Same River Twice." He grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, where most of his work is set. "A Good Pine" will be included in his new collection of stories titled "Luck."