Mr. Wolfe didn’t tell Kate much about this particular job before sending her out. “Old guy at Woodside, already dead,” he said, pouring himself a Scotch, even though it wasn’t yet noon. “Basic processing. BTF.” But now, here at Woodside Nursing Home, Kate saw that Mr. Wolfe had been wrong. The old guy was not dead. Barely alive, hardly breathing, nothing but a lump under a thin gray blanket, but not dead. Which explained the photograph still propped up on the nightstand.
In these types of cases (BTF — when the dying would be planted beyond the fence), any personal effects were thrown out as soon as the person died. This made it less complicated for Forever Tree seed sellers like Kate. This helped the seed seller forget that this was a human being lying here, one with a history. Easier to plant someone beyond the fence that way. But get a glimpse of any kind of personal effect and, like Mr. Wolfe liked to say, “You could end up watering a person for the next 50 years.”
Kate was about to grab the photo and stuff it into the briefcase strapped over her shoulder when the nurse marched in. She was an old woman, probably around 40, Kate guessed. Anyone over 35 seemed ancient these days. Kate had 10 more years before she fell into that group. Ten more years — the time stretched before her like a prison sentence.
The nurse gave Kate a quick glance as she picked up the chart lying at the man’s feet. “Basic processing,” she said, making notes and checking boxes. “BTF.”
The man on the bed opened his eyes. “BTF” — he knew what that meant. Everyone did. His soul would be poured into a Forever Tree seed, but instead of being planted alongside anyone he knew in a Forever Forest, he’d go beyond the fence. Alone forever.
The man didn’t look up at Kate, even though she stood right at his bedside. He stared at the floor and, after a moment, huddled into a fetal position. Her boss Mr. Wolfe called it “the hug of the dead.” An apt name for it, really, Kate thought, since so many of the dead ended up that way. During the summer when the plagues came around, most corpses scattered everywhere were coiled like that, in the hug of the dead. Kate had counted 15 in the Duncan Donuts parking lot last summer, their faces covered in flu smear, while men in hazmat suits loaded them into white trucks.
The last one they loaded in: Mr. Skeffington, her next-door neighbor. She hadn’t even known he was sick, but that was how fast the plague bug could take you. So fast you didn’t even have time to have your soul gene extracted. “The gene expresses a few minutes after death, when it’s getting ready to depart,” Mr. Wolfe had said, her first day on the job. “You gotta extract the DNA then, Kate, and there’s no time to tarry. No lollygagging. No wishing you were someplace else, doing something else.”
The briefcase strap dug deep into Kate’s shoulder, heavy with seed catalogs. The man in bed before her still hadn’t looked up, but she could see now that his eyes were clear and bright, unclouded by cataracts. Early 60s, she thought; maybe even late 50s. His eyes were a deep brown, so brown that the whites around the irises looked almost blue. Eyes like her Uncle Jack’s. “Uncle Jack,” she’d say, sitting on his lap, long long ago, Sunday pot roast and mashed potatoes cooking in the kitchen. “Uncle Jack, your whites are all blue.”
She slid the strap off her shoulder and set the briefcase on the floor. “Does he have a tree preference?”
“Not that I know of,” the nurse said, still engrossed in her paperwork. “Hasn’t said a word since he got here.”
Kate had met such people before. The people in the photo — the one she wouldn’t let herself look at — were probably his family, and they were probably all dead now, Kate thought, all except him. He was the only survivor, somehow untouched by the plague bug, and left to live the rest of his life alone. Such people often ended up like he did, wandering the streets, speechless and dazed, and picked up from the gutter and brought to a place like this to die and have their DNA extracted. Other lone survivors, like Kate, like Mr. Wolfe, hadn’t gone that route. They went to work every day instead. They drank their lunches alone and went home to quiet houses.
Kate sat down on the folding chair beside the bed. “I’ll sit here awhile, if you don’t mind.”
“Suit yourself.” The nurse set down the chart at the foot of the bed and left the room.
The routine in these types of cases, when the customer was a “nonresponsive,” was to choose an elm and be done with it. Sign the paperwork and move on. That is what Mr. Wolfe would tell her to do. He had said it plenty of times. “No need to give them the spiel, Kate. E-L-M. That’s all there is to it.”
If it were up to her, people could have a choice about the whole thing. If it were up to her, people wouldn’t be forced to graft their souls on to Forever Seeds if they didn’t want to. But the law said otherwise, and she could go to jail if she didn’t soul-extract this man. The United States of Forever Trees, Inc., Kate thought. That’s what the country had become.
So Kate had sold more than her share of elm seeds, and every night on her drive home she saw the trees they had become. Lonely, ragged-looking things, planted beside dumpsters, in abandoned lots, and on the edge of landfills; all of them slow-growing, and none more than 10 feet high, as if getting that tall was all they could muster; their leaves more yellow than green, since no one watered them or fed them Everlife Fertilizer.
And this man would be another. Soon she would drive by him, too, and someday she would forget which one he was, and no one on earth would remember him then.
“E-L-M, Kate,” Mr. Wolfe’s voice sang in her head, and still she sat there, not able to do it, and decided finally that at least she could let this man choose his tree. Just because he’d be planted beyond the fence, she reasoned, didn’t mean he couldn’t choose his tree.
But she didn’t know how to start. She cleared her throat and put the briefcase on her lap, but the man just stared at the floor and wouldn’t look at her. The room was cold and quiet, and the only light came from the small lamp on the nightstand. Kate wrapped her sweater closer around her. This place must be full of the dead, she thought, with corpses coiled in every bed.
She waited in the quiet, and after a while, the man slowly moved his gaze toward the photo on the nightstand. His expression softened, and his whole body seemed to relax as he regarded it. She told herself not to look at it, and Mr. Wolfe’s voice in her head told her not to as well, and that she had to stay strong in these types of cases, and reminded her about the whole “watering a person for 50 years” scenario, but the photo was like a living thing. It tapped on her shoulder, coughed politely and whispered in her ear, wanting her attention. She glimpsed at it before she could stop herself.
The picture showed a group of people. Smiling people, every one. They sat at a picnic table under a weeping willow, and there was a lake or river in the background. A happy summer day, from the looks of it. She picked out the man right away. There he was with a little girl on his lap, a little girl with bright golden hair …
She turned away again. “These kind of cases — they’ll break your heart if you let them,” another thing Mr. Wolfe liked to say, but never in the morning. Always toward the end of the day, when the bottle of Scotch was near its end.
The harder she tried not to think of the photo, the more it came to life, and then, dreamlike, it turned into her family sitting there at the table, with their easy laughter and gentle teasing. There they were, picnicking on the Delaware River on the 4th of July, her favorite day of the year. There was Aunt Dor, dishing red Jell-O salad from a big white Tupperware, and Uncle Jack next to her, sipping on a Budweiser, his arm draped around her shoulder. And Mom and Dad, they were there, too, Dad at the end of the table, manning the hot dog grill, tongs in one hand, cigarette in the other, and Mom, her head tilted back, eyes closed, laughing at one of his jokes (“Oh, Ned, you’re awful. Awful!”). But where were the children? Where were Kate, her cousins, her brother Max? Where were they? Down at the river, of course. Swinging from a rope tied to the big black birch alongside the river. Jumping into the swirling green water. “Watch me, Katie, watch me!” That’s what Max cried, every time he swung.
But those days were long past. The plagues had come and changed everything. Within a week, Kate’s family was gone. Dying in a summer plague, before the discovery of the soul gene and the planting of the Forever Forests. Her brother Max was the last to go. Just barely a man when he died, not even 18. He’d never even had a girlfriend. “You were always the lucky one, Katie,” that was the last thing he said. It was hard hearing anything in that big hospital tent full of the sick, so she had leaned closer to his cot to hear him. He reached out then, to touch the mask over her mouth, but she had jolted away.
She shifted in her chair and sighed. Mr. Wolfe was right. It didn’t help to think of these things. His voice had been silent in her head, but now it came back strong and clear. “Focus on the work, Kate. The work. That’s the important thing now.” She took out a catalog from her briefcase and started her sales pitch.
“We have a wide choice of seeds. Everything from crepe myrtle to dogwood, Lebanon cedar to redwood.” She flipped through the catalog, hoping to catch the man’s eye. “Deciduous or evergreen, that’s the first thing to decide. I’m sure you know the difference between the two.” No reaction so she barreled ahead. “It all depends on how active you want to be, once you cross over. You want to stay active, I’d suggest going the deciduous route. A flowering pear or a maple. You want to be more reflective, I’d go evergreen. Oak is our most popular.”
At the word “oak,” the man finally raised his eyes and looked at her. Some people were like that. Mention a hundred different trees and they’d say “no” to all of them, and then suddenly the right one came along and they perked up. Mr. Wolfe had a theory about it, like he did about everything. “Everyone has a favorite tree. Didn’t you? I sure did. A big old magnolia. That’s what I want to be when my time comes. Don’t forget.”
“The good thing about our oaks,” Kate said, “is the very fast incubation period. Because of our Growth Propel Technology, you’ll be fairly mature within a year. Here. Let me show you.” She scooted closer to the man’s bed and held up the picture of an oak with a wide canopy. He squinted to look at it. He needed a pair of glasses, Kate thought, but there were none to give him. “This is two years’ growth,” she said, more confident now, now that she’d drawn his attention. “Another good thing about oaks is that they’re drought-tolerant …”
She wished she hadn’t reminded the man that no one would water him once he was planted. Wherever he was, Mr. Wolfe shook his head and poured himself another drink. She blushed and sat back in her chair and busied herself by flipping through the catalog.
But after a moment, the man smiled at her. His eyes lit up, too, with the tiniest of flickers, as if this whole watering thing was a little joke between them. It had been a long time since she had shared a joke with anyone. She blushed even more, feeling shy, and tried to remember how to respond.
It felt dangerous, remembering such a thing, and Mr. Wolfe clucked his disapproval in her ear. But the memory sauntered back, quick and graceful, before she could stop it.
“At least it’s not eggplant” — she and Dad used to say that to each other at the dinner table whenever Mom experimented with a new recipe (“I found it in Good Housekeeping!”). Mom’s experiments turned out pretty good most times, but a few were downright disasters, including, worst of all, the eggplant parmesan, which Mom swore she had prepared just like the recipe said to, and yet the eggplant was a tough as an old boot. But Mom had worked so hard on it that Kate, Dad and Max chewed away until the whole pan was empty. Afterward, whenever Mom pushed a new dish on them, they were always glad for one thing, at least: “At least it’s not eggplant,” Dad would whisper to Kate, or sometimes the other way around, and always with a laugh in their eyes.
“At least it’s not eggplant,” Kate said now, very, very quietly. If only Dad had been planted, she could visit him and say that, and his branches would sway and his leaves would fall gently on to her head like little soft kisses. If only. If only. “The two worst words in the English language” is what Mr. Wolfe called them. He was right. There were no if only’s. She had no trees to visit.
The man had been watching her closely, his eyes kind, the slight smile on his face more sad than happy. Kate let herself look deep into his eyes, eyes so much like Uncle Jack’s, and she let him look keep into hers. They held each other in a kind of embrace that way, and for a sweet moment they were not alone.
Stiffly, slowly, he reached for the photograph. His hand shook as he did so. He had workman’s hands, Kate saw now, strong and calloused. A mechanic or a plumber, she thought. Or maybe a carpenter. Her dad had been a carpenter. “Hand me the sander, will you, Katie?” he’d say. “Or as we pros like to call it, ‘the thing that smoothes wood'” — sunlight streaming through the workshop windows, sawdust glimmering in the air.
The man pleaded gently with his eyes, and Kate took the photo from the nightstand and handed it to him. A small wrinkled snapshot, unframed, probably kept inside his back pocket for years and years. He put the photo against his heart and held out his other hand to Kate. “Don’t do it, ” Mr. Wolfe said, but she took the man’s hand without hesitating. Mr. Wolfe went completely mute then and shook his head, his eyes moist as he poured himself the last of the Scotch.
The man had a hand just like her dad’s — and like Uncle Jack’s, and her brother Max’s, too, if only he’d lived long enough. She had buried their ashes on the hill behind her house and then she put a bench there. One her dad had built, of polished oak. Most nights, after work, she sat at on the bench and looked out over Forever Forest No. 23, a particularly pretty forest of maples, which turned bright red, orange and yellow in autumn, and from that spot she could listen to the contented sighs of the Planted as they relinquished their leaves to the ground.
My spot on the hill could use some shade, she thought.
My spot on the hill is just close enough for the garden hose to reach.
My spot on the hill, she thought, sitting taller, has room for an oak. For more than one oak, even. There’s even room for a magnolia.
My spot on the hill could become my own little forest.
“Oak,” she said, and the man smiled a little smile and closed his eyes. “We’ll go with oak.” And gently, very gently, when she saw it was time, she let go of his hand. She took the photo and slid it gently into her briefcase. And then, when the time was right, just as the soul gene expressed, she extracted the DNA, just as she had thousands of times before. Just like Mr. Wolfe had showed her to. From right above the heart.
Published in Rose Red Review, 2015