SHORT STORY
 

Joshua, Mr. Jenkins, the Tree and the Silence
by Emile Alexander Dodds

      “Dear, there’s a man in the tree!”

      Joshua got up from his comfortable chair to see what his wife was talking about.  She was gesturing out the window, a look of disdain on her face.

      “There’s a man sitting in the tree.  Look!”

      Joshua peered out the window.  He was greeted with a typical suburban scene of mowed lawns, two cars in every driveway, nice family houses... and a man sitting about twelve feet up a tree.

      “That’s Mr. Jenkins,” he said.  “He’s just some homeless bum that wanders around here every now and then.”

      His wife still did not look pleased.  “Go and tell him to get out of the damn tree.”

      Joshua told his wife that he would do nothing of the sort.  However, his interest was piqued. He put his jacket on and went outside for a closer look.

      “Afternoon, Mr. Jenkins,” he called up to the branches above.

      “Afternoon, Joshua,” Mr. Jenkins smiled down as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

      Joshua regarded the old man with his raggedy clothes and his toothless grin.  He looked peculiarly happy.  “Uh, Mr. Jenkins,” he asked, “what the hell are you doing up this tree?”

      “Well...” the old man looked genuinely surprised to be asked such a question.  “I don’ know, Joshua.  I kinda like this here tree.  It’s pretty comfortable, y’know.”  Mr. Jenkins looked around and shook the trunk a little bit as if to test its sturdiness.  “I don’ know if I’m ever comin’ down.  Y’know what kinda tree this is?  It’s an Acer Griseum; they’re pretty rare around this part of Vermont, y’know.”

      “How does a homeless bum get to know so much about trees anyway?” Joshua called up.

      “Heeheehyeww!”  Mr. Jenkins made Joshua wince with his trademark laugh.  “Joshua my boy, I know a whole lotta things.  A whole lotta things.  But what I know right now is that I ain’t comin’ down outta this tree.  No sir!”

      Joshua shrugged and turned to head back into his house.  Let the old bum sit in the damn tree.  Personally, Joshua just wanted to get out of the wind and sit in his cosy house in his comfortable chair reading the newspaper.  And that is what he did.

      After a while, Joshua’s wife stopped moaning about the strange man in the tree.  Then it got dark and with a belly full of macaroni and cheese, Joshua pretty much forgot all about the tree.  The next morning, though, his wife was at it again.

      “That damn fool is still up that tree!”

      Joshua told his wife to calm down.  Then, after she had left for work, he went out to see Mr. Jenkins again.

      “Morning, Mr. Jenkins.”

      “Mornin’ Joshua.”

      “You about ready to come down out of that tree now?”

      “Heeheehyeww!”  The old man looked as cheerful as ever.  “Now you listen up Joshua.

      “Mr. Jenkins gone up in the tree
     It’s the peacefulest place to be
     Nobody up here to bother me.
     And I ain’t never comin’ down
     Ain’t never comin’ down.”

     Joshua winced.  The old man’s singing was really, really bad.  He looked up into the branches above.  Old Mr. Jenkins was sitting up there just as happy as a lark.  He really did look like he had no intention of ever coming down.  Joshua promised to talk to him later and then left for work.

     At the office, Joshua could not help thinking about the old man in the tree.  Acer Griseum.  Joshua smiled to himself.  He would have to check on old Mr. Jenkins on the way home from work.

     Well, Mr. Jenkins was still there after work.  And the next morning.  And the next day after work he was still there too.  Joshua took pity on him and decided to bring him out some food.

     “Good afternoon, Mr. Jenkins.”

      “Good afternoon, Joshua.”

      “I brought you some sandwiches, Mr. Jenkins.  Catch.”  Joshua tossed a little plastic bag up to the old man.  He caught it and eagerly tore into the food like a man possessed.  Joshua stood there and watched him eat.

      “Say, Mr. Jenkins, how do manage to sleep up that tree?”

      “Well, Joshua, it’s more comfortable than you may think.  It’s a real sweet tree.”  Mr. Jenkins was wiping the remains of the sandwiches from his beard.

      “And how do you, uh, go to the bathroom?”

      “Easy, Joshua.  I just hang my ass over the side here when no one’s lookin’.  Say, you better watch your step down there.”

      Joshua raised his eyebrows, then quickly looked down at his feet.  “Well, what about having a shower?  What about food?”

      “Heeheehyeww!” Mr. Jenkins laughed.  “I don’ need to have no shower.  And you brought me these sandwiches didn’t ya?

      “Mr. Jenkins gone up in the tree
     It’s the comfiest place to be
     Nobody up here to bother me.
     And I ain’t never comin’ down
     Ain’t never comin’ down.”

     Joshua could only shake his head and walk away.  Crazy old man, he would come down out of that tree one of these days.

     But days passed and Mr. Jenkins did not come down.  The days turned into weeks and then into months.  Over the protests of his wife, Joshua would carry out food and water to the old man every day.  It became a daily ritual. Joshua would toss up the food and water and stand around a while to chat.  Surprisingly enough Mr. Jenkins, living in a tree, had more to talk about than Joshua, an accountant with a good job, a wife, a house in the suburbs and two cars.  It really got Joshua to thinking.

     And the more Joshua thought about it, the more it became clear.  His life was just as monotonous as living up in a tree, anyway.  Get up.  Eat breakfast.  Go to work.  Listen to his boss nagging.  Lunch with a client.  Come home.  Listen to the wife’s nagging over dinner.  TV.  Bed.  There was nothing to trigger off a change because nothing ever happened.

     In fact, there was one thing that Mr. Jenkins had in his tree that Joshua did not have in his home or his office: peace.  After all, peace is the only thing that makes monotony bearable.  Joshua thought about the Tibetan monks that he had seen on TV.  They looked so peaceful sitting in meditation up in their mountains far away from the pressures of the world.  He remembered that Mr. Jenkins had once told him that there was a fine line between reality and real life.

     So he did it.  One day after work, still dressed in his shirt and tie, he came straight back and climbed up the tree.  He perched himself on a branch opposite Mr. Jenkins.

     “You were right, Mr. Jenkins. This is a comfortable tree.”

     “Heeheehyeww!” Mr. Jenkins laughed.  “That’s my Acer Griseum.  Once you get comfy, you may want to stick around for a while.”

     The two men sat in the tree and they laughed and they joked. They were generally having a good time when trouble approached in the form of one angry wife.

     “Joshua!  What the hell are you doing?  Get down from that tree right now!”

     “Sorry, Dear, I like sitting up here.  I’m not coming down today or anytime soon.”

     “Are you out of your frigging mind?”

     Joshua wished that she were out of his mind. He tried to persuade her that it was for the best.  She shouted, screamed, pleaded, threatened, sulked and cried, but it was all to no avail.  The only thing that cheered her up a little bit was when Joshua threw down the keys to his BMW and his credit cards.  Then he sang to her:

     “Joshua’s gone up in the tree
     For some p-e-a-c-e
     Nobody up here to bother me.
     And I ain’t never comin’ down
     Ain’t never comin’ down.”

     “Don’t think I’m going to bring you out any food, Joshua.”  His wife stormed off back to the house, shaking her head.

     But she did bring food out for the men.  She brought food the next day and the day after that.  She still grumbled about her husband from time to time.  However, she appeared to have accepted the situation.

     One day, while Joshua and Mr. Jenkins were sitting and shooting the breeze, they heard a voice from down below.

     “Hey, what language are you two speaking up there?”

     “What?” Joshua called out.  When he peered down, he was surprised to see a van from the local TV station there.  There was a camera crew and that smarmy reporter he had seen on ‘Hot Edition’.  The smarmy reporter was calling up to them.

     “What the hell do you want?” Joshua called down.

     The smarmy reporter straightened his cheap tie.  “I just want to ask you fellows some questions and record a little footage for our show.”  He took out a notebook with some scribblings on it.  “How long do you plan to be in up in that tree?”  He held the microphone up towards the two men.

     “We ain’t never comin’ down.”

     “What made you go up there?  Are you trying to make a political statement?”

     “We ain’t talkin’ about a tree-volution,” Mr. Jenkins grinned.

     “We’re just into virtual tree-ality,” Joshua called out.  The two men laughed and laughed until their eyes watered, much to the frustration of the smarmy reporter.

     “Come on, guys, give me a proper sound bite now!”

     Joshua turned to Mr. Jenkins with a look of mischief in his eyes.  “Give him a proper sound bite Mr. Jenkins!”

     The old man cleared his throat noisily and began to sing:

     “There is a tree in West Vermont,
     They call it Acer Gri-se-um,
     It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy,
     And Lord I know I’m one...”

     By the time Mr. Jenkins had started to beat out the tune to the second verse on his bared buttocks, the TV crew was already pulling away in their van.  The smarmy reporter stared out the window, a look of disgust on his face.

     “I don’t think we’ll be on TV any time soon, Mr. Jenkins.”

     The two men laughed and settled back into the lush, green branches again.

     “They always come with questions,” Mr. Jenkins said.  “It’s always the same.  They come with questions and they think that you can give them answers.  But all you can give them is more questions.”

     Joshua pondered this for a minute or two, getting increasingly lost in his thoughts.  “Mr. Jenkins,” he said, “have you ever heard of those Tibetan monks meditating for enlightenment?  I’ve always wondered what that must be like.”

     The old man stroked his beard.  “Well, Joshua, if they saw us sittin’ up here in this tree, we’d be just as much of a mystery to them.  Anyway, I’m sure enlightenment must be different for everybody.  A different route, different sensations.”

     The two men chatted a while longer.  Then, as the evening came in and darkness fell, they drifted slowly off into sleep, dreaming of monks and camera crews.

     The seasons passed and the men remained aloft in the tree.  Acer Griseum.  From their vantage point, they could see everything.  Kids going to school in the morning would wave to them before bundling on to the school bus.  They saw every animal, every squirrel, bird and every insect that shared their home.  They gloried in the beauty of nature and nature seemed to glory in them, putting spark into their words and stimulating their consciousness.

     They talked and they talked.  Sometimes about serious matters, sometimes about language, and sometimes about nothing.  One day Joshua said, “You know what really bugs me? When people say ‘same difference’.  God, I hate that dumb expression.  And another one is ‘Be careful what you wish for...”

     “...you might just get it. Heeheehyeww!” Mr. Jenkins added.  “How about this one: ‘You either seem what you are or you are what you seem.’”

     “Happiness is the total lack of happiness,” Joshua reflected.

     Joshua’s wife still brought out food for the men, but less and less frequently and always without words.  It did not matter too much anyway; the men seemed to become more distracted, more into their surroundings.  They blended in so well that as people passed, some of them did not even notice the two men high aloft in the branches.

     But they were content.  Joshua came to know the meaning of true peace.  The kind of peace that only a tree could know.  And the tree was his friend too.  He talked to it and told it of the passing seasons, the snow covering the ground in winter, and the gentle warmth of the spring.  When the lush leaves returned, he found himself complimenting the tree on its newly rediscovered beauty.

     Then the emptiness came.  Joshua watched the houses gradually grow empty and abandoned.  He could no longer remember the families who had once lived there.  A gentle wind graced the street but less and less cars passed.  People no longer passed.  His wife no longer brought food.  It was strange; as the neighbourhood emptied, the colours began to fade.  Without the cheerful cries of the children there were no vivid reds or greens.  Abandoned houses cried out for a fresh lick of paint, a revitalisation.

     After the emptiness came the silence.  Or was it only the lack of sound?  No, this silence was tangible and it grew and it covered the neighbourhood like a carpet of snow.  It lay there heavily, not expecting a response.  The silence entered Joshua, and gently became him.  It was difficult to breathe.  It was difficult to move.  Everything was beautiful and slow.

     Joshua wanted to say to Mr. Jenkins that it seemed as if time was slowing down.  But Mr. Jenkins was not there.

     “Mr. Jenkins...?”  Maybe it took him minutes to call out the old man’s name.  Maybe it took him hours.  He was all alone.  He reflected on this.  Alone in the world.  Alone in his world.

     Joshua’s gone up in the tree

     It was morning now.  The sun was beginning its lazy ascent.

     For some p-e-a-c-e

     A tear formed in Joshua’s left eye.

     Nobody up here to bother me.

     Time had slowed so much that it seemed the sun would never break free of the horizon.  The tear began an eternal descent down Joshua’s cheek.

     And I ain’t never comin’ down

     Joshua seemed frozen, able only to keep eternal vigil.

     Ain’t never comin’ down.

 

 END

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