The Apple Tree

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, 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 his spot.

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 they were about people who stood on a far away bank of time. Somehow these people lived forever, like a character in a play. The play was his memory and in it the person remained the age he last saw them.

The person wasn’t dead. They could only be dead if they could be missed.

The spot he chose would have what he was looking for. He found a spot, 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 a 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 a 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 seeing them as from another world and 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.

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.

The first time he ever had it, he swished it around the way he knew he should. It was that smell. Not exactly. But it was as if someone had bottled that summer moment, extracted that feeling and poured it in a glass. And like the memory of her, their cousin, it burned a bit 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 took a deep inhalation and looked into the brown liquid. He didn’t feel any more alone or sad. He didn’t feel a welling of regret. He just felt a simple longing for some thing he could not have because he didn’t know what it was.

He asked for his check. And paid. He took one drink, 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.

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