THE FELLING CUT
Phyllis stared at the uneven maple in her yard. There was only enough life left in the tree to produce a canopy on one side, but she couldn’t bear to cut it down. Instead, she transformed it into a memorial for her late husband Frank by hanging bird feeders at every level of the eyesore. She bought a new feeder every year around his birthday and another on their anniversary. She used a large metal scoop to transfer birdseed mix from feed sacks into a pail, and then went back-and-forth from her shed, filling the eclectic collection of feeders. It was no quick task. She was up to twenty-two of them.
Maintaining Frank’s memorial tree meant Phyllis raged constant war on the neighborhood squirrels. She’d become a bit of an expert after conducting countless hours of research on the internet studying squirrel deterrent strategies. She set live traps, she tested ultrasonic solar-charged repellers, and she even upgraded some feeders to the expensive kind that allow birds to perch on them but spin under the heavy weight of the rodents. Phyllis was satisfied every time she watched one of the pests fly across the yard, like one of those theatrical wrestlers who gets thrown from the ring.
Phyllis once estimated that she’d relocated at least 250 squirrels over the years. This forced her to start spray-painting the tips of their tails because, in the beginning, she was sure that some of the same ones found their way back to the feeders. This was confirmed one September when a squirrel with a lime green streak on its tail returned. After that, she determined that the minimum boundary for relocation needed to expand from ten miles to fifteen. So far, she was correct.
A small lantern hung from the maple’s trunk. Phyllis reached into her back pocket for a long barbecue lighter. Phyllis held the safety button down, clicking the trigger on the cheap, plastic gun until a flame shot from the barrel. She transferred the tiny fire to a small candle inside the lantern on Frank’s tree, bringing it to life.
Eleven years earlier, in the perfectly manicured yard of their humble rambler, her late husband Frank had been trimming the same tree when he fell from his ladder. He died a slow and painful death three days later.
Every day since it happened Phyllis replayed the event at least a dozen times in her head. What ate Phyllis alive was that she knew the accident was going to happen.
Phyllis watched from the porch when Frank rested the tallest ladder they owned against the giant maple. A tree, when in its prime, dominated the front yard. Frank had been an immaculate gardener. He never complained about transferring endless wheelbarrows of crumbling leaves to the compost pile. But on that day, a recent storm had cracked the massive sugar maple right down the middle, as if God herself had reached from the sky with a giant hatchet.
Frank positioned the ladder against the limb that needed cutting. Anyone standing back and watching would have seen the mistake, but the only thing Phyllis could come up with after all the years of replaying it in her head was that Frank must have been too close to the tree to notice what he had done. It was an innocent, if not stupid, mistake.
The real tragedy, Phyllis decided after years of rumination, was that she’d chosen to keep her mouth shut when she noticed the problem.
That very morning she and Frank had blown up at each other over dirty dishes sitting on the kitchen counter.
“You don’t have to nag me about personal housekeeping,” Frank said. “I’m not a moron Phyllis.”
“I didn’t call you a moron, dear,” Phyllis gently defended herself.
But it was clear she’d insulted him. In his riled-up tone he lectured her, “Even if I lived alone, I’d eventually put the dishes in the dishwasher. It’s not like I’d run to Walmart and buy paper plates and plastic forks because I couldn’t figure out what else to do.”
Phyllis had lived with Frank for over twenty years and could recognize when he was struggling with criticism. It had never been his strong suit. Their dirty dish debacle unfolded exactly like a troubled couple she’d just read about in a magazine article.
So on that fateful day, as Phyllis watched her beloved husband set his ladder in a questionable place, her mind shifted into overdrive.
Don’t correct him. Maybe he’s just leaning it. Don’t interrupt. He’ll be furious. What did that article say? Emasculating? Don’t emasculate him. Maybe he’s got a plan.
The thoughts knocked around her mind as the familiar smell of mixed gas wafted through the air when Frank snapped the starting pull on the chainsaw. Frank braced his legs against the rungs as his upper body swayed. The saw sputtered and smoked as Frank adjusted the choke and swore at the tool for good measure.
Might’ve been a good idea to run it before you climbed the ladder. Don’t say a word. Maybe go inside.
Phyllis watched uneasily as Frank brought the tool to the underside of the branch that needed trimming. Her jaw clenched tight like a clamp until she realized he was only cutting a notch. Her thoughts continued to knock. Don’t interrupt. He’s got it.
Frank flipped the kill switch on the saw and lowered it to the ground by a rope. He carefully navigated the ladder rungs as he climbed down. Then he snatched the ladder away from the tree and walked around to the other side of the limb, where he rested it back down again. Without hesitation, Frank grabbed the end of the rope and climbed right back up the ladder. Phyllis watched as he pulled the rope, hand-over-hand, bringing up the chainsaw. This time when he yanked the pull-start the engine purred.
“Frank?” she managed to get out, when she realized that this time he was making the felling cut. Frank couldn’t hear her and probably wouldn’t have stopped even if he had. Phyllis watched in horror as the love of her life amputated the section of the tree that had been holding his ladder almost twenty feet up in the air.
Phyllis returned her lighter to the kitchen drawer and noticed there were already three other lighters inside it. She wondered if she was running short of them at work and if she’d been mindlessly bringing them home in her overalls again. She bought them in bulk for grilling the lumberjacks sausages on their lunch breaks. There was nothing worse than knowing a crew of hungry men would be coming out of the woods and the grill wasn’t hot. Neither of the gas grills at the logging camp had working igniters. There was enough machinery to be maintained there that the barbecues were the least of their worries.
Phyllis snatched two of the lighters out of the drawer and walked through the attached garage out to her pickup truck. She opened the passenger door and set the lighters on the seat so she’d remember to return them to the camp kitchen.
Over her shoulder, she looked at the four chainsaws sitting in the truck’s box that she had just sharpened. Officially, Phyllis ran the kitchen, but in her downtime, she always helped with upkeep. She could’ve done it at the camp but the workbench there was so tall that her arms and shoulders got tired twice as fast. There wasn’t a man alive who would agree to work with his hands way up under his chin, elbows hiked up high, like some kind of drunk prospector dancing at a hoedown.
At home, her vice was mounted at the perfect height so she could clamp down a saw and then thoroughly work through every single tooth on the chain with her file. It was a hypnotic job that reminded her of the evenings when she would knit and put herself into a trance while Frank watched hockey games. Tomorrow she was going to tell the foreman that if they didn’t give her an appropriate workstation - if they didn’t at least make her a step stool - she was finished sharpening for his sorry ass.
The guys liked her soups, stews, chilis and hot coffee so much she knew they weren’t going to argue with her. Just say something. You can tell them. Tomorrow. I will.
Over at Frank’s tree, a squirrel with a bright green tail was on a feeder. It was one of the expensive ones that should’ve tossed him off. She marched across her lawn wanting to choke it with her bare hands.
Phyllis stood before the wounded trunk with her hands on her hips, jaw clamped tight enough to crack a tooth. Her nostrils flared as she tried to pump oxygen down to her lungs, past the lump in her throat. She dropped into her body and pictured a vice grip compressing her neck. Tears burned like meltwater down her face as she studied the hideous array of feeders she’d amassed over the years. The only thing that could’ve made the collection worse was if she’d added pink flamingos. Embarrassment flushed red-hot across her chest in splotches.
One by one she began removing the feeders with the same, methodical steadiness that she used to fill them. She lined the feeders up all along her driveway, a veritable squirrel buffet. Phyllis dropped the tailgate on her pickup and grabbed the closest chainsaw. She yanked the pull start and let it idle while she walked back to the sorry tree and removed the lantern. She blew out the candle. Happy Anniversary Dear, she thought, as she started tackling the chore she should’ve done in the first place.
Phyllis gave it full-throttle and began cutting.