“Catalpa” by Robert Boucheron

The catalpa scratched the sky with long seed pods, curved and twisted like fingernails allowed to grow by a person who never washed his hands, a crazy hermit who lived in a cave, or an ancient Chinese scholar who painted scrolls. Linda liked weird figures and unconventional personal habits.

Her mother said she read too much. Her mother watched TV all day, for news and weather and programs guaranteed to change your life. For Linda, life had barely begun, so change was not the issue. With no children to play with, she relied on her own resources. After the divorce, she was drawn toward the dark—night in general, birds like crows, the inside of a closet.

In the yard of the two-bedroom house they rented, the sky was gray and the wind was cold. Snow might start to fall at any moment, a fine white dust, barely noticeable, unless it fell on something like asphalt or the sleeve of Linda’s jacket. Her mother vetoed the black she wanted, so Linda had to settle for purple.

The catalpa had the yard to itself. When they moved here in spring, after the court issued its decree, the tree was covered in white blossoms, soft little cups that showered like confetti. Linda flinched when they touched her. Broad leaves followed. They cast a welcome shade in summer. Green beans grew all over the tree. The beans turned brown. Her mother called them pods, which sounded better.

Now the pods were mostly split and empty. Here and there a black seed clung like a drop of ink, a burn spot on a tabletop, a missing dot from the letter I. Treading on withered grass that crunched, breathing air that hurt her lungs if she gulped, Linda stooped to gather dry pods from the ground.

It was something to do, like picking up sticks for kindling, a task assigned to a child in a book. Her mother told her to do things. Make the bed, eat the vegetables, brush your teeth. She scolded when Linda did them wrong, or grudgingly said “good job.” The interesting tasks were the ones Linda invented for herself.

She was always enacting a story, making it up as she went along. What would she do with a mitten full of seed pods? They writhed in her hand like snakes. They made a slight hiss when she rubbed them together.

Linda liked to discover things, unheard-of possibilities. She gathered more pods and heaped them beside the tree trunk. She could tie them in bundles. They were brittle, but maybe she could soak them, make them pliable, and weave them into a basket. A misshapen basket with loose ends and a gnarled handle. Linda had never woven a basket, but maybe it wasn’t hard. There’s a first time for everything, her mother said.

The afternoon dragged on. Was the sky was getting darker? Maybe the sun was going down behind the veil of clouds. Linda felt stiff with cold in her purple jacket and blue jeans. The thin, dark pods were getting hard to see, hard to grasp in mittens. In rubber boots her feet were numb. She walked like a zombie to the little pile of brush. She held her arm out straight and dropped the handful. She was ready for something else to happen, for the snow to start, for a crow to perch on a bare tree branch, for a form to detach itself from the shadows and float menacingly.

A van was parked in the driveway. They didn’t own a car, and the house had no garage, just a patch of gravel off the road. A sign on the side of the van said “Mr. Rooter.”  A picture showed the face of a man in a funny cap. The picture looked nothing like the real Mr. Rooter.

Linda’s mother said the house had plumbing issues. Mr. Rooter had visited three times, always in the late afternoon. He stayed for about an hour. Linda was supposed to stay outside until he drove away in the van. Sewer gas, her mother said, was noxious to children. Grownups could tolerate it because they were bigger.

Mr. Rooter was staying longer this time. He had said no more than a word to Linda, but he looked at her in a creepy way. She did not trust Mr. Rooter in his bright red shirt and polished leather shoes. No funny cap, just a big smile.

This time, he didn’t take a bag or box with him when he entered. He did not come out of the house to fetch something from the van. No lights switched on. This repair job was not only long but performed by the light of a candle or a torch. Maybe her mother held a lamp in a hand that trembled.

Linda was curious about the van. Was it locked? In the dusk she crept toward it. She tried the rear door, which opened. The inside was a mess. Racks of pipe and fittings lined the sides. The floor was cluttered with parts and tools. She had no idea what most of them were. There was also trash—fast food wrappers, paper bags and cups.

Linda decided to give Mr. Rooter a present. She ran back to the catalpa, scooped as many pods as she could, and placed them in the back of the van. She repeated this errand.

Mr. Rooter would know what to do with a heap of dry husks. He might poke them in a drain, or whip them through the air to disperse deadly fumes. Or, when he found them, he might swear a blue streak.

Then she saw the disposable lighter. Catalpa pods would burn. Linda wasn’t like boys who struck matches, blew up firecrackers, and set fire to things to see what would happen. She already knew what would happen.

 

– – –

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, and Poydras Review. His one-act plays were staged in 2016 in Concord, North Carolina and the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival.