The Air Between Us
When Tim and I were big enough to reach its lowest branches, the oak was our spaceship. We were a Mike/Tim commando sent to save the universe. When the aliens attacked we’d eject into a musty mound of leaves, shouting “All for one and one for all!” But the tree grew heavy, too dark—like a shadow we shared.
If you listen to Tim, the oak’s now a burden to the whole neighborhood: leaves everywhere in autumn, too much shade in summer. Moss is taking over his new Empire™ Zoysia Turf lawn in ‘the oppressive, sprawling shadow’ of the oak. And apparently, though I wasn’t even born yet when it was planted, it’s all my fault.
We’re enjoying a spell of Indian Summer now, so everyone’s out in their yards. I end up sort of spying on Tim chatting with Chuck, an overbearing life insurance agent who shares Tim’s other hedge. They manage to joke about surgical supplies—Tim wins awards selling them—for over half an hour. I crouch by the hedge, delicately working dandelions up by the roots. When I finally bend myself vertical, the laughing stops and Tim’s face darkens. He says a chummy ‘Chuck you later’ and barrels across the lawn. By the time he reaches our hedge he’s a fury.
“It’s killing my grass. You know that, right? You know how much this fucking lawn cost me?”
“Tim, you know I can’t do anything about the oak. It’s against Codes to cut it down.”
“Just say it’s diseased for Chrissakes.”
“The tree itself is a disease.” He’s pulling handfuls of dry, brown leaves out of the hedge and throwing them onto my lawn. “If the damn thing were on my side of this hedge, you’d be singing a different tune.”
“I love raking leaves, Tim. Raking is healthy. It’s good for the back and the shoulders.” I turn to go into the house. Sandra’s calling. She screams her head off, needing my help in the kitchen, when she hears our voices rise. We have this argument at least once a week, like an absurdist comedy that grows louder and louder as it spins in circles.
“I’ll send the girls over to rake,” I say over my shoulder.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Mike! I need you now!” Sandra’s standing at the back door.
His childless marriage is a no-go topic. He always hears innuendo when I mention my own children. Tim and Marian have been married without children for almost ten years, and lately Marian seems more turned on by her belly-dancing class than by Tim. On Thursday nights she comes home in a taxi, drunk and roaring.
“Dammit, Mike. Tell me what you meant by that!”
“Sandra needs me,” I say.
“We’re not finished.”
“We never are.”
Sandra is folding napkins at the kitchen table, waiting to discuss what’s just happened. She teaches third grade, so she’s a self-appointed relationship therapist. “The space between you two is so . . . so”—her hands massage the air; her voice falls to a whisper—“muddy. It’s like you two share the air between you, like you overlap to create something in the middle with an awful life of its own. Like a monster in the hedge.”
“Really, Sandra? Is that what we are? A monster in the hedge? A muddy one?”
“A pretty scary one actually.”
Tim has a big corner office, the kind with twenty awards perfectly spaced an inch apart on the walls, a secretary outside, a company car—an Audi Q5 with a gas card. Just ask him. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t let kids win at Monopoly. In the fourth grade, when I won a blue ribbon for building a Popsicle-stick log cabin, Tim gorged on Popsicles for months and built a castle, which I accidentally creamed with a basketball. I was aiming for his face. I said I was sorry, then added that I didn’t hit your head—because I was nine and a smartass.
When Dad died a few years ago, he left me the house his father had left to him. He wasn’t playing favorites. He was a traditionalist, and I was the oldest. Sandra and I had two children and one on the way. All girls. I’m sure my father thought I’d need to sell the house to pay for three big, fat WASP weddings. Any way you looked at it, the big house—with its big yard and that big oak—was the right thing to leave us. Tim and Marian inherited enough money to buy a large house in another area of town, but they chose to buy a modest house on a smaller lot adjacent to our property. But the tree is still my fault.
A couple of branches go brown, and I’m sure Tim is poisoning the oak. I set up cameras but never get anything on tape except Ellina, the neighbors’ cat, who occasionally uses our yard as a litter box. Tim watched me install the cameras, so the fuss is hardly worth the effort.
Winter and spring pass without one shouting match. Tim’s anger rises and falls in waves: it swells as the oak leaves turn from green to brown and subsides with snow. His reaction to a few new dead limbs in spring is smug and satisfied, as if his problems have finally met their end.
A few weeks after we finish building one of those hardware-store garden sheds, Tim announces he’s going to build a garden house complete with fireplace and a bar for martini parties, which he never has. It’s going to be the biggest Codes will allow. “Maybe bigger,” he promises.
In October, a little fairy-tale cabin overwhelms the far right corner of his back yard—directly under the oak. It doesn’t take long for the roof to be covered with the reds, browns and golds of early autumn, then the sludge of November. When the chimney clogs up and the porch on the front of the cabin becomes a skid of decomposing leaves, Tim goes postal.
“Hey! Mike!” He’s charging toward our hedge. “Who’s gonna climb up on that roof and clear those goddamn leaves out of my gutters? You gonna pay someone to clean out my chimney? It’s your tree. Goddamnit.”
“Mike!” Sandra’s calling.
“Tim. You built it right under the tree. What did you expect?”
“Someone’s gotta keep those leaves off the roof. They’ll rot there, and then we’ll have moss and weeds and little oak—”
“Keep your voice down, OK? You should’ve thought about that before you—”
“Why do I have to keep my voice down? And why does everything I do have to revolve around you?”
One of our neighbors closes his kitchen window.
“I wish I knew the answer, Tim.”
“Mike!” Sandra calls. “Dinner’s ready. Mike?” It isn’t even close to dinnertime.
“This is what you’re gonna do, Mike. You’re gonna cut the limbs off on my—”
“Won’t solve anything. And a few of those limbs are dead anyway. Any idea why?”
“Good point! It’s dying, so what’s the big deal? Why not just put it out of its misery?”
“Your misery, Tim. We had a specialist come a couple of weeks ago to find out what’s wrong with it.”
“What’s right with it?”
“Just letting you know.”
“Stay focused, Mike. Someone’s gotta get up there and clean that roof. Soon.”
“You want me to help?” I ask. If I replay the tone of my question a thousand times, I’ll never know if it’s dismay or genuine willingness. I want to believe I’m genuinely offering to help my brother.
“The boundary between our yards”—he waves his hands up and down like a sci-fi force field straight up through the oak—“goes up like that.”
“Look, you ass, most of the tree up there is actually on my side. That’s the part you’re gonna get rid of.”
“Excuse the hell out of me,” I say, “that the boundary between our properties doesn’t know how to keep my leaves on my side and your bullshit on yours.”
“Mike! Can you please come here!” Sandra’s standing on our back porch.
“Are you gonna help me or not?” Tim shouts after me. “Goddamnit!”
I don’t turn around, and I can’t go back and turn around now any more than my grandfather can come back from the dead and uproot that sapling. With Tim still shouting profanities, I walk into my house to endure another one of Sandra’s counseling sessions.
“If the tree’s dying anyway, why don’t we just get rid of it?” Sandra is scrubbing something black from the bottom of a pot. Suds and bits of grit from the sink fly every time she waves her hand to start a new sentence. “Wouldn’t that help clear up things?”
“It’s not dying.”
“Who cares if it’s not dying? Why do you have to talk to each other that way?” Soapy, dirty water sprinkles my face. “I mean in public. It’s mortifying. I keep expecting to see you two wrestling on the evening news.”
“He starts it,” I say, sounding just like one of Sandra’s eight-year-olds.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should just have it cut—”
Something like the sound of a horse dropping dead interrupts us. When I see the ladder propped against Tim’s garden house, I grab my cell phone and have an ambulance on the way within seconds. We get Tim to the hospital in minutes and in a doctor’s hands before we are able to reach Marian. It all happens on fast forward.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Sandra keeps saying in her annoying, whispery voice. “You acted as fast as you could.”
“Can we talk about something else? A little louder maybe?”
“I’m trying to be supportive.”
“Well, Sand, you’re being annoying.”
We hear Marian before we see her running down the hospital corridor, shouting. “Why was he up there? What was he doing on a ladder without someone spotting him?”
“Marian,” I say. “I didn’t know he was cleaning the leaves off the—”
“Leaves? From your tree?”
“Marian, come on. You’re being unreasonable,” Sandra says.
Marian turns on Sandra. “Save it. I’m not one of your third graders, Sandra.”
“Excuse me.” It’s the doctor. “Is Mrs. Mitchell here yet?”
“That’s me,” says Marian. “I didn’t get the call until just a few minutes ago.”
“Fucking hell. I called you,” I say. “And I kept calling you until you picked up. Give me a fucking break.”
“Your husband is seriously injured, Mrs. Mitchell.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’re still running tests, but—excuse me, are you two family?”
“I’m his brother.”
“Mr. Mitchell will be paralyzed.”
Marian’s eyes still-frame on the doctor. “This is all your fault, Mike.”
Tim’s sitting in his chair on his back porch where I can watch him suffer. He’s paralyzed from the neck down, but for some reason he can move his left hand—‘a useless little miracle’ Marian calls it. He comes home hooked up to a machine that keeps him upright and helps him breathe. I wish I could say I was praying for his recovery; that would sound so noble. It isn’t my fault. It’s his fault. It’s the oak’s fault. It’s my grandfather’s fault for planting it at all. The sun and the rain too.
“Mike, can you come in here?” Sandra shouts from the kitchen. She’s sitting at the table, holding a letter. “The tree is diseased after all,” she says. “It has something called ‘Armillaria mellea, a root disease commonly known as armillaria root rot.’ They say we have to remove it. It says here—”
“Let me see it.”
“Don’t jerk things out of my hand, Mike.”
“What the . . . ‘At the owner’s expense’?”
“It says in the next paragraph—”
“I can read, Mrs. Mitchell.”
“I’ll be in the den.”
The report says the disease is perfectly normal in older trees. No one poisoned it. The document confirms what I already know: we all have to die sometime.
The reaction is immediate. If I’d had the report done a year sooner, the tree would have been removed before Tim built his cabin, and he wouldn’t be in a wheelchair or gasping for every breath. The remark doesn’t come from Tim or Marian; it comes innocently from my oldest child. She isn’t accusing me of anything; she’s simply stating the fact—maybe a wish. Maybe I could spin around the earth like Superman until time goes back to when Uncle Tim was fine? I want to tell her that was quite a long time ago, when the oak was our spaceship, but I just say, “Me too.”
We have the oak cut down and uprooted as fast as we can. Tim watches from across the hedge, sipping the hot mulled wine Marian holds up to his mouth.
In spring, we plant a white fir in the oak’s place and sod the yard with the same turf Tim has. Three weeks later you’d never guess there’d been a war here, except for the presence of Tim on his porch, struggling more and more to breathe and staring at the place where he fell.
“How did it get this crazy?” I ask myself. I’m cleaning the kitchen window, an excuse to stare helplessly at my new, bland back yard.
“You have to figure out a way to help him.” Sandra is standing right beside me. She’s making cupcakes for an Easter party. With three girls, she’s always making cupcakes for something.
“God, Sand. Why always me? No matter what I do, I promise you it’ll be the wrong damn thing.”
“Mike, the girls are in the living room.”
“When you shout like that and use profanity, they think we’re fighting.”
“God . . .” I hate it when she’s right, but she is right so much. I need to fix this.
“Just say you’re sorry,” she says, letting gold and pink sprinkles fall all over her cupcakes in a gesture meant to make reconciliation look like a cakewalk.
“It wasn’t my fault!” I shout at the closed window.
“Mike, please. The girls.”
“It’s Grandpa’s fault for planting the tree in the first place.”
“Of course it is. And if Adam and Eve had been more assertive parents, Israel and Palestine wouldn’t be fighting now. Cupcake?”
“I’ll never apologize. I didn’t do anything.”
“That’s just it, Mike.” Her voice descends to her infuriating whisper. “Now’s your chance to do something.”
“Save it, Sand.”
Back in November while Tim was in the hospital, Marian planted a thousand tulips in their back yard—a surprise for him in the spring. She said she was going to create a sea of pink and yellow to lift his mood and give him hope. She also wanted to cover up the fact that their expensive turf was dead despite the new abundance of sun.
In April their yard is like a tulip field in Holland, and Marian is six-months’ pregnant. Her tulips, a breathtaking spray of color in the breeze, thrive until the unusually warm, arid April turns the yard into an enormous, square pin cushion. Only two weeks after they bloom, Marian gets out the mower.
She keeps mowing over acorns, which shoot out like bullets in every direction. When I offer to help, she hits me. Or maybe she pushes me. I shrug it off and try to take the mower from her anyway.
“You’re pregnant, Marian. Let me do it.”
She pushes me again. “Trying to lame me too?”
“I’m done.” I retreat to my side of the hedge.
For a month I go nowhere near the back yard. I stay away from the windows at the back of the house and tell the girls to keep the curtains closed.
“It’s dark in here, like somebody died,” Jessie, my youngest, says one morning. She’s six and never lets a subject go without analyzing it. She’s a pint-sized Sandra.
“I’m having a problem with Uncle Tim, honey.”
“Because you paralyzed him?”
“Daddy didn’t—. Wait, where did you learn that word?”
“Mommy said you ‘helped create the space that paralyzed him’. She says if you would have helped him, he wouldn’t be in the chair.”
“Jessie, can you do Daddy a favor?”
She raises her head, not exactly a nod.
“Can you dust the furniture in the den? I’ll give you a dollar.”
“OK, two, but it has to be a great job this time. You have to dust for twenty minutes.”
When she trots off to the den, I slip out the front door. Sandra is planting pansies around the border near the driveway.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing telling Jessie I ‘helped create the space’ and all that bullshit?”
“You know full well I had nothing to do with the accident.”
“Can we go inside to have this conversation?” Her smile is granite.
“I don’t think so. The girls are in there. They might hear me shouting and think we’re having a fucking argument!”
“And our neighbors are out here, Mike.”
“Jessie thinks I refused to help him. Why did you tell her that?”
“Our phone’s ringing.”
“Well just let it fucking ring!”
She stands up and walks toward the front door. “Morning, Curt!” She smiles at one of our neighbors. I wave too, but he doesn’t return it. Even Curt believes everything’s my fault.
Sandra comes back out before I get to the front door. “That was Marian. She’s gone.”
“She left him.”
“Why the hell would she do that? She’s pregnant.”
“She didn’t say why. She just said we should go over there. And help.”
Tim’s living room smells like a hospital. He’s sitting in his chair zapping through channels with his good hand.
“Why would she do this? Who leaves a husband in a wheelchair? My God, she’s pregnant, Tim.”
“Actually,” Sandra says, “It’s not uncommon.”
“Zip it, Sand.”
Tim cranes his neck toward the ceiling, stretching for air. “It’s not mine.”
“What’s not yours?” I ask.
“I’ll move in,” I say.
“I’ll go pack your clothes,” Sandra says.
She leaves us there averting our eyes. I busy mine with a mess of unopened letters on the dining-room table. For the last few years Tim has only roared through the hedge at me; now, sitting here in his living room, he can’t get three words out without gasping for breath.
“She cheated . . . before . . . before . . .”
“Don’t talk,” I say, “if it hurts.”
“I can’t . . . feel.” He smiles.
I sit down at the dining-room table and let him talk, always stretching his neck up, straining. He tells me about the men she’s had. I know most of them. Tim knows most of them. He let it go on for so many reasons. He loved her—that was the main one. He couldn’t have children. They had an arrangement. If she got pregnant or fell in love, she’d leave. They’d remain friends. But the accident changed things between them. She was weary of playing nurse to an asshole.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”
“I don’t like you,” he says and tries to laugh.
The next day I do something crazy. I go out and buy Popsicle sticks. It’s Sandra’s third-grade-teacher idea. I buy every stick in the city from every arts and crafts store I can find. It takes me four days to rebuild Tim’s castle, the one I destroyed when I was nine. Events like this are supposed to be sappy and curative, but when I’m finished neither of us knows what to do with it. Play with it? “Too much like a dollhouse,” Tim says. I suggest he cream it with a basketball. ‘How?’ he asks, lifting one finger on his good hand.
I take a leave of absence from my job, sit with him every day. I feed him and wash him, get anything he needs. We don’t talk much, but it does feel as if we’re beginning to recreate a good space between us. When he isn’t sleeping he likes to sit outside and name the birds that come to his feeders.
One evening in late September, we’re sitting on his back porch, enjoying a brilliant swarm of yellow birds against a dark blue sky when he smiles and whispers, “I think I want to go.”
“No, stay. I’ve never seen so many yellow birds,” I say.
“I ready to go.”
I pretend I don’t understand what he means, but I think of nothing else in the weeks that follow. I’ve spent so much of my adult life despising my little brother for one reason or another. I hate him for making me endure his envy. I hate him for doing the same to Marian, a perfectly good woman. I hate the monster in the hedge we created from our worst parts. I hate him for making me feel his misery is my fault when I feel helpless to do anything to help him. But I’ve never wanted him dead; I just wanted him to live somewhere outside my space.
The muscles in Tim’s throat begin to fail fast. The machine helps, but not nearly enough. One afternoon as I’m moving the widescreen TV into his bedroom—he wants to watch The Packers game—he whispers “Mike.”
“Yep?” I’m kneeling down, plugging in the TV, with my back to him.
He says something else, but his voice is so soft that I hear only scratching noises. I turn away, open the curtains. A TV evangelist’s commercial is ending. The sun makes the widescreen TV a burst of gold with sappy music. Tim tries to speak again, but his whisper is no match for the preacher. I want to believe he’s trying to say something important like ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ something sentimental like “Plant another oak. Make it a good space again.” I want to go back in time, fly around the world a few times and turn off that damn TV.
“What?” I’m hovering over him. “Say it again, Tim. Say it again.”
His face is stunned, horrified, preoccupied with the biology of his own leaving. He isn’t trying to rephrase a cry for help. He isn’t searching for the words that would clear the air between us. He’s choking to death.
I run downstairs, call 911 but hang up after the first ring. I sit at Tim’s kitchen table, staring through the windows of our Popsicle-stick castle. I could call Sandra or Marian, but I can’t listen to another person tell me it’s all my fault. Hamstrung, I sit, wait and do nothing.
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