The Apple Tree (Revised)

I’m weary with my former toil
Here I will sit and rest a while
I’m weary with my former toil
Here I will sit and rest a while
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

“Why do they always call you?” he wondered.

“Because they know I’ll answer,” her voice said.

“What did she die of?” he asked.

“It wasn’t exactly clear,” her voice said.

“That’s how it is,” he said. “Vague.”

He’d ducked out of the rain to take her call. It was movie set rain. It was like a Bogart movie where three fire trucks poured water from their hoses on some people standing near a fake train. But here there was no set. The rain was so real and hard it seemed that it had to be fake. But it wasn’t. And there was no Lauren Bacall either.

“I knew you’d want to know,” her voice said.

He caught that feeling he’d get with her sometimes. Like he should say something nice.

“I don’t get why they can’t just say what happened,” he said. “I’m glad to hear from you anyway.”

“I’m not even going to ask if you’re coming back,” she said. “The kid thinks she might see you.”

“We have so many common enemies,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” her voice asked.

He sighed.

“I just mean…” he stopped. “I don’t know. I feel like you and I are, well, we know the history, how they behave.”

“But enemies?” her voice said.

“Maybe the wrong word,” he said. “All of a sudden I’d like to ask you out for a drink.”

“All of a sudden I feel like I need to hang up,” she said. “Maybe I’ll call back when I feel like I actually miss you.”

“Jesus,” he said. “Ok. I’ll talk to you later. Maybe…”

She hung up.

Phone calls with her were like communicating with a one armed bandit, sometimes it was a jack pot. Usually he felt like he’d wasted his time and was a loser.

He got across the street to another sheltered corner.

“There is a spot,” he thought.

He did his best to avoid getting soaked as he ran in and out of people on the sidewalk. Then he found an empty stool at the bar.

These kinds of calls, about a death or disease, would come now and then. By now, they were more routine, not because they came so often but because he got used to them, numb to them. These calls were about people who looked at him and he at them from far away across a rushing river. Somehow these people lived forever, like characters in a play. The play was his memory and in it the person remained the age he last saw them. The memories would play and they would live. They weren’t dead.

They couldn’t be dead. They could only be dead if they could be missed, and they couldn’t be missed as long as he had their memory.

The bar he chose would have what he was looking for, and he found a space, the only one, between two people at the crowded bar. People were chattering stupidly.

“When it comes to dessert,” a woman to his left was blathering in a high pitched voice, “I’m just not a chocolate girl.” She giggled.

“Can I get something started for you?” the young man behind the bar asked while stirring a drink.

It was a peeve. Can I get something started? You still working on that? Have you been here before? Well, let me tell you how it works. You want fries with that?

He restrained himself.

“Give me a minute,” he said.

He remembered her as young girl. She and her sister were girls. The first girls he knew. They went from being playmates to inhabitants of some inaccessible world. They spent their time on the phone and in the bathroom. And in cars. He was always in the backseat listening to their music and their singing.

Then they became beautiful. Or maybe he changed and could see their beauty. Maybe they always were beautiful.

Somewhere in between that shift from girlhood to being in the world of women, was an apple tree at their grandma’s house. They played on it, around it, chasing each other. There was a makeshift swing on it. As the apples ripened and fell they mixed with leaves on the ground. It was a rotting smell. Toxic. Boozy. As they ran around that tree they were unwittingly starting a process of fermentation, trampling out a muddy apple brandy.

At some point, she fell, landed on her ankle and sprained it. There was his cousin rolling around in the mix of leaves and apples, crying. He tried to help her stand up but she fell on him. For a moment, here was this girl, her weight on him, her hair, her skin, her tears. A girl. This is what a girl feels like. Smells like. A girl and rotting apples.

“Calvados,” he finally said. In the short time since he engaged in his reverie he was alone at the bar. It was that kind of town. There were buses to catch and television shows to watch. Bars filled and emptied fast.

The first time he ever had the Norman gold, he swished it around the way he knew he should. Then there was that smell, a memory in a glass. It was as if someone had bottled that summer moment, those apples, the sweat, her tears, and extracted that feeling, boiled it all put it in a bottle and poured it in a glass. And like the memory of her, their cousin, it burned going down.

The waiter set the drink in front of him. Was that tree still there? It was the last tree of an orchard that had been wiped out by a frost years before. It had been a long time. What happened to that tree?

He closed his eyes and put his nose above the rim of the glass and inhaled deep. Then he looked into the golden liquid. He didn’t feel alone or sad. He didn’t feel a welling of regret. He just felt a simple longing for something he could not have because he didn’t know what it was.

He asked for his check. And paid. He drank it all at once, absorbed its bright heat, like that summer day, like swallowing the sun, and then walked back out into the rain.

This fruit does make my soul to thrive
It keeps my dying faith alive
This fruit does make my soul to thrive
It keeps my dying faith alive
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Back to At Last!

“Jesus Christ The Apple Tree” by Elizabeth Poston. Sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. About 1993.