Three Things That Happened
Jun 17 ● BY Jess Charest
The two men faced each other. A deliverance of bad tidings was exchanged in the dark molasses of their glare. Eyebrows twitched, two brown ones and two blonde. It was August, the air heavy with impending rain.
“Well, look at this.” Pascuzzo snapped his gardening gloves onto the lawn. “What in the hell are you doing on my side, Johnson?”
“Jesus, Pascuzzo, I’m only a foot or two over. Relax,” he said, inching around the tree. He held a plastic bucket of pears in his left hand. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his right.
“You know the rules,” Pascuzzo said.
The rules were: each man and his family could pick as much fruit as they wanted from their side of the tree. The other man’s side was his own business, and tampering with it was considered indecent. Pears on the ground were anybody’s game.
The tree had been planted several generations ago to mark the property line. Slowly, over the last seven years, ever since Johnson and his family had moved into the weathered brick house, a pressure had been building. A small picket fence was built on either side of the tree, to specify its midpoint. The wives were uneasy. Johnson and Pascuzzo were waging a war. Hatred glinted in the glassy circles of their eyes.
“Come on, be a good neighbor. You know my kids love ‘em,” Johnson said.
“Oh, don’t go bothering with that excuse. Just because I don’t got kids doesn’t mean I don’t get any pears. I’ve got a wife, and she has a recipe for pear tarts that I cannot wait to try.” Pascuzzo rested his hands on his round belly.
“Fine,” Johnson sighed, reaching into the bucket and lobbing a pear underhand. It landed near Pascuzzo’s feet. “I just took a couple from the middle, okay? Give these to your wife.” He tossed a few more with his long, spindly arm.
“Goddamn it, Johnson,” Pascuzzo said. “Now they’re going to be all bruised.”
“It’s not like you’ll actually eat them, anyway,” Johnson said under his breath, turning to retreat into the house. He was not, by nature, a combative man. But Pascuzzo seemed to bring out the worst in him.
The pears were large, yellow and grainy. Both men were tired of seeing them, tired of battling over them, tired of their coarse texture. Pascuzzo didn’t really like fruit to begin with. He was a meat and potatoes, salt of the earth sort of man. But after seven years of nursing a growing contempt for one another, they weren’t fighting over pears anymore, but principles.
It was the way Johnson let his kids run wild, climbing the tree like it was some kind of jungle gym. The way he lorded his fatherhood over Pascuzzo, like he deserved more out of life because he had reproduced. The way he mowed his lawn so early on Sunday mornings.
Johnson didn’t like Pascuzzo because he was loud and nosy, he left the Christmas lights up on his house until April, he never went to church, and he talked to Johnson’s kids like they were a couple of badgers trying to steal from his garden.
“You can keep this one,” Pascuzzo said. He picked a piece of fruit off the ground and pitched it at Johnson, striking him between the shoulder blades. He regretted it instantly.
Johnson spun around, his eyes watering. “You’re worse than a child,” he said, marching back into the house, his bucket swinging.
Pascuzzo stood motionless by the tree, thinking that maybe his house could use a fresh coat of white paint. He held out his hand when he felt the first drops of rain, and then he turned and went inside without taking any pears with him.
* * *
Sal Pascuzzo, age 57, was a carpenter by trade. He was a member of the union. Sal had a card that read United Brotherhood of Carpenters; below that it said his name.
He was short and pudgy, with dark hair and dark eyes. He was born with a cleft palate, which had been corrected by surgery when he was an infant. A faint scar lay perpendicular to his mouth, resting gently on the left side of his upper lip. His wife always told him that it was sexy, that it made him look like Joaquin Phoenix.
He and his wife did not have any children, because Sal’s sperm was never effective enough to produce any. But his wife loved him deeply, in spite of this. They kept a bevy of talking birds, which she cared for with a motherly tenderness. She was an attractive woman, and Sal felt a tingling sense of pride whenever they went anywhere together—to the movies or the supermarket or to the community center for bingo.
Sal’s hobbies included fly fishing, watching WWE wrestling on television, and working in his garden. He grew potatoes, tomatoes, and herbs, among other things, which his wife used in her cooking. She was a very good cook. Sal was not.
But he was good at building things out of wood––sheds, garages, houses, gazebos. Sal held nails in his mouth like they were part of his body. He built their little white house himself, back in ‘82. His secret dream was to one day learn how to build a boat and then learn how to sail it. His hands were rough and sandpapery, his nails neatly trimmed. At night, in bed, he read mystery novels aloud to his wife, and she fell asleep to the gravelly sway of his voice.
* * *
Pascuzzo slammed the door behind him.
“That first class jerk,” he shouted. “I don’t know how we can live next door to such animals, Martha.” He kicked off his shoes.
A long-legged brunette materialized beside him. She was wearing an apron. A gray parrot sat bobbing its head on her shoulder.
“Animals Martha,” the bird said.
“Relax, dear.” She touched his cheek. “I’m making meatloaf for dinner.”
“Meatloaf isn’t going to solve anything,” Pascuzzo said, pouting, even though he felt better already, just hearing the word.
“How about blueberry buckle for dessert?” She wrapped her arms around him.
“That sounds good,” he said forlornly. “But what about those pear tarts?”
She stroked his hair. “I’ll make them Sunday, when your mother comes to visit.”
“My mother,” Pascuzzo said, sighing.
“My mother,” said the parrot. “Blueberry buckle.”
Pascuzzo sat down on the sofa and started a crossword puzzle. Martha busied herself in the kitchen. The gray bird fluttered around the living room and pooped on the coffee table.
* * *
In the brick house next door, Johnson helped his daughter with her third grade math homework. He was patient, but stern.
“Here, look, you’ve got to carry the two,” he said, pointing with a mechanical pencil. “Just add that two right here at the top. You know this stuff.”
“Are you mad at me daddy?” she asked. “You seem mad.”
“I’m not mad, pumpkin.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Just tired.”
“He’s mad because Mr. Pascuzzo hit him with a pear,” his son called from the other room. “I saw it through the window.”
“Mind your own business, Tim,” Johnson said. “It’s not polite to spy on people.”
“I wasn’t spying!” he said. “I was just checking the weather.” The staccato rhythm of video game gunfire echoed through the hallway.
“Rain,” Johnson said. “It’s raining.”
Timothy, the elder child, had a passion for meteorology and lizard collecting, though he was forbidden from keeping lizards in the house. Recently, Johnson had noticed that he was growing smart-alecky, and he feared that the boy’s adolescence was soon approaching.
“When’s mom coming home?” his daughter asked.
“Not until later sweetie,” Johnson said. “She has to work tonight.”
The girl whimpered. “What will we eat?”
“I thought we’d order a pizza.” He smiled, trying to raise morale. “From Papa John’s?”
“Their pizza stinks!” Timothy yelled.
* * *
Dale Johnson, age 45, was a computer programmer who worked mostly from home. He spent a great portion of his day in a swivel chair and often felt a dull ache at the base of his spine, which he took to be back pain, but was actually the result of loneliness. His wife was an up-and-coming entrepreneur who hardly left the office. Dale wasn’t bitter about her success, but he desperately missed her company. He was glad to be able to spend so much time with his kids, but he had found that, unfortunately, an eight-year-old and an eleven-year-old didn’t make the best conversationalists.
He was tall and wiry, with blonde hair and a long face. He wore rimless glasses and a fastidious mustache. His favorite kind of food was Indian. His favorite flavor of ice cream was pistachio. His favorite type of nuts were pistachios. Dale loved pistachios. They were the fail-safe gift that his children got him for Christmas or his birthday. That and golf tees.
Dale enjoyed golfing, collecting stamps, hiking (which he almost never got to do), and whittling. One year he whittled a miniature of each of the 44 presidents of the United States. He stored this collection in his woodshed, which was where he went to read and unwind when the kids were at school and he didn’t feel like working. He mostly read historical biographies. Dale was allergic to bee stings.
* * *
Hours after he read Eloise at the Plaza to his daughter and tucked her into bed, his wife finally came home ornery and tired. He hugged her for too long, and then he tried to tell her about his fight with Pascuzzo.
“Enough about the fucking tree!” She whirled, her hair billowing out like a dress.
She looked sexy, Johnson thought, even though there were circles under her pale green eyes—but he wondered why she had to show so much cleavage.
“For God’s sake. I’m sick of it,” she said.
She ran up the stairs and got into bed without eating dinner, and by the time that Johnson worked up the courage to join her, she was asleep. He slunk outside to the woodshed, lit his lantern, and cracked open the biography of James Buchanan, Jr., the fifteenth president of the United States. Old Buck, the only president who never married. Lucky guy, Johnson thought halfheartedly—still, he wouldn’t have traded in his marriage for a million dollars, even if it was a little touch-and-go sometimes.
He fell asleep right there in his beat-up easy chair with James Buchanan, Jr. on his lap. The warm glow of the lantern illuminated the rivulet of drool that crept down his chin. The pear tree stood sentry outside. Nightcrawlers squiggled in the dirt.
* * *
The tree, age 112, was secretive and wise, with gray-green, moss speckled bark and a complicated tangle of branches. Her thin, gentle stalks grew out of the thicker ones, sticking straight up, like she was reaching for the sky. Scientifically, she was known as Pyrus communis, and more casually as the Yellow Bartlett. She was sixteen-and-a-half feet tall, all long knobby limbs and sharp leaves.
In April, she found herself opening up thousands of tiny, surprising green buds. In May, there were the white blossoms that fell like snow and then came the heavy yellow fruit that marked the beginning of the end of summer. She did not like to let go of them, and she held onto the fruit for as long as she could.
Pyrus was afraid of spiders and thunderstorms. Astrologically, she was a Pisces, but she never believed in that sort of thing. Her favorite color was chartreuse.
* * *
There were three things that happened to the pear tree, which was typical because disasters usually come in threes, and this rule did not make exceptions for fruit trees. The first was the baby bird.
Timothy found it one morning when he was out in the yard, hunting for lizards. A twitching little lump of pink, almost translucent in its newness. It peeped and peeped and kicked its tiny legs. The boy squatted down beside it, his mouth open. It was skinny and bald, with black wings and black circles for eyes. Timothy looked up and saw a nest in the branches above.
Pascuzzo was trimming his hedges. He saw the boy crouched over something—probably a goddamn gecko, he thought. But the boy had an anxious look about him, and Pascuzzo put down his giant scissors to go find out what he was doing.
“Whatcha got there kid?” he asked, leaning over and scanning the grass. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and it took him a moment to spot the newborn sparrow. “Ah,” he grunted, without waiting for an answer. “Poor little guy must’ve fallen out of his nest.”
“It looks like an alien,” Timothy marveled. “Do you think it’s going to die?”
“Nah.” Pascuzzo shook his head. “We’ll just pop him back in there. He’ll be A-OK. I’ll go get my step ladder.”
“I could just climb,” Timothy said.
“You think?” Pascuzzo touched the scar on his lip. “Yeah, let’s try it. You get up there and I’ll pass him up to you. Be real careful though. I don’t want you fallin’ out of this tree.”
Timothy pulled himself up into the tree like he had done it a thousand times, which he had. He was nimble and quick, like most eleven-year-olds. He eased himself out onto the branch where the nest was and lay down on his belly a little ways in front of it, his arms dangling.
Pascuzzo nudged the squirming thing onto the palm of his hand. The sensation of its tiny body jerking against his calloused skin made him skittish. He reached up toward Timothy by standing on tiptoes. For a minute, it seemed like their hands weren’t going to be able to meet, but then the boy plucked the bird away gently. He slipped it into the ramshackle nest to peep with its brothers and sisters.
Before Pascuzzo could slide down from the tree, the door of the brick house swung open and Johnson darted across the lawn.
“What are you doing?” he said, glaring at his neighbor.
“We’re rescuing a baby bird, Dad,” Timothy called down.
“Just doing a good deed, Johnson. Nothing to worry about,” Pascuzzo said.
“You shouldn’t have touched it, Timmy.” Johnson scowled, his eyes glossy and cold. “Now the mother bird will never come back. She’ll smell people, and she’ll abandon the whole nest.”
Everyone was silent, except for the birds.
Timothy slid down from the tree and ran towards the house, tears wetting his eyelashes. Johnson shook his head, sighing at the other man, then turned and followed his son. Pascuzzo stood there for a moment, leaning up against the tree, listening to the birds saying peep, peep, peep.
The tree rustled quietly in the breeze, wanting to say to the man: don’t worry, he’s wrong about that, you know. She’ll come back.
* * *
The second thing that happened was the escape of the parrot. The alabaster-white one with the yellow mohawk of feathers, Martha’s favorite, her baby boy.
Pascuzzo had opened the front door to take in a package (Martha’s birthday present, a heated bird perch) when the parrot blew past him in a streak of white, like the house was on fire. Pascuzzo was shocked. None of their birds had ever tried to get out before, especially not this particular bird who was clearly the favorite and who was allowed to sleep in their queen-size bed and cuddle with them at night. Pascuzzo had been unnerved by this at first but had come to accept it as part of his life. This bird was going to live to be 80 years old, Pascuzzo often told himself. This bird was going to outlive him.
The white parrot fluttered around the front yard, wheeling through the air in fat loops. He came to rest in the pear tree, landing on one of the highest branches. Pascuzzo stood stock-still, his mouth open, terror in his eyes. Had he forgotten to clip the bird’s wings last month like Martha had asked him to? He clenched and unclenched his fists, took a deep breath, and inched toward the tree.
He stood underneath it, looking up at the bird through layers of mottled leaves. A pear thudded to the ground, and Pascuzzo flinched. Martha wasn’t home. It was a Saturday, which meant she was over at a girlfriend’s playing canasta. The parrot bobbed its head back and forth, making fast clicking sounds with its tongue, raising and lowering its wings in some kind of showy celebration. Its mohawk fanned out imposingly.
Pascuzzo made the special whistle all of the birds responded to almost as if by magic. The white parrot ignored him and went on clicking. “Whatta ya want, baby boy?” he asked in his high-pitched bird voice, then screeched loudly and started laughing. Usually Pascuzzo found his laughter charming, but seeing the bird cackle at him from up in the tree was menacing and strange. He felt afraid of the parrot but even more afraid of what would happen if he didn’t get him back in the house.
He didn’t want to, but he grit his teeth and banged on Johnson’s door, hoping his wife, or even his kid, would be the one to open it.
Johnson answered. “We have a doorbell, you know,” he said, a sourness painted across his face. He was wearing an apron and had a spatula in one hand.
“I need your help.”
The urgency in Pascuzzo’s voice disarmed him, knocking him off balance. “What is it?” Johnson asked, untying the apron.
“McCall,” Pascuzzo said. “McCall got out and now he’s up in the tree.”
“McCall?” Johnson asked softly. He set his spatula down on the bookshelf.
“Our bird,” he said, gesturing. “Come on, move carefully.”
Pascuzzo eased out onto the lawn, with Johnson right behind him. They walked in cautious single file to the base of the tree. The carpenter pointed solemnly to his bird, even though Johnson was already staring up at him, hands in his pockets. Both men stood there for several moments, gazing into the terrible arms of Pyrus communis, wondering what they were going to do. The parrot screeched victoriously. “Saturday night smackdown!” he said.
Johnson had never witnessed a talking bird before, and he felt like he might be hallucinating. The pear tree was giddy. To hold such a beautiful bird in her branches! She was delighted by his strange, humanlike voice. He is like a small, feathered person, she thought. And she was glad that, for once, the men were not bickering. For once they were quiet, and they looked so much more handsome when they were quiet. Especially the rounder, dark-haired one.
“I’ve got a net,” Johnson whispered. “A mosquito net. In with our camping stuff, in the attic.” He made unnecessary hand motions like he was trying to use sign language.
“Go get it,” Pascuzzo said, looking gravely into his neighbor’s eyes. “I’ll stay here and make sure he doesn’t fly away.”
The two men and the tree all had the same thought at the same time: no one could stop the bird from flying away.
“Check the batteries,” the parrot said, hopping from one foot to the other.
Johnson crept his way to the front door, glanced back at Pascuzzo, nodded, and slipped inside. He took the stairs two at a time, grabbed the piece of twine that dangled from the ceiling outside his daughter’s bedroom, and pulled down hard. He unfolded the ladder in one quick motion, and shimmied up the creaking wooden steps.
It was dark in the attic. He had been meaning to replace the one yellowed bulb that hung somewhere above him and had blown out months ago. He felt his way along dusty boxes of Christmas ornaments and baby clothes toward the northeast corner of the room, where he knew their camping gear sat, moldy with neglect. He heard a dull droning sound but dismissed it, trying to focus on the mission at hand. He sneezed twice. He had always been very sensitive to dust and mold. He reached the pile of forgotten sleeping bags that his wife had ferreted away, each one in a black garbage bag, to keep the moths out. They rustled as he dug through them, trying to reach down deeper toward the back of the pile where the net would be.
The buzzing was louder now. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, just enough to make out the outlines of the things closest to him. He looked up above his left shoulder, where the sound was coming from, and saw the curved, papery silhouette of a wasps’ nest. He could hear them circling round him, tapping against each other, bumping into walls.
His palms became instantly sweaty. If one of those wasps stung him, his throat would swell up and his blood pressure would drop and he would probably die. He would maybe die. There was an EpiPen in the medicine cabinet in the downstairs bathroom, but that was two flights of stairs away. He might not make it. No one was home to help him. He would have to call 9-1-1. What if they didn’t get there in time?
Stay calm, he shouted to himself silently. Johnson got down on his hands and knees, like the wasps were smoke from a fire and he would be safest close to the ground. He backed out across the splintery wooden floor, holding his breath, each hand trembling as he lifted it, crawling backwards, closer to safety. When his foot slid off the edge of what felt like the top of the ladder, his heart leapt, and he practically flung himself onto the highest rungs. His foot caught, and he faltered and fell, sliding down the wooden steps and stopping himself with his right hand, tearing the flesh of his palm. He wiped blood onto his khakis, stood up, took a deep breath, remembered Pascuzzo, and sprinted toward the front door. He burst out of the house.
“Shhhhh,” the carpenter hissed. “Where’s the net?”
Johnson stopped short, almost crashing into his neighbor, and leaned over, panting, to catch his breath. “Bees,” was all he could get out.
“Bees? What are you talking about?”
“Well, wasps. There was a wasps’ nest,” he said, taking a huge swallow of air. “I’m allergic. I had to get out of there.”
“Are you kidding me Johnson? You didn’t get the net, because of bees?! You’re really that afraid of a few bees? Jesus Christ!” He shook his head, a murderous look in his eyes. “I’ll go. You stay here with McCall. Where is it?”
“The attic,” Johnson said weakly. “I’m not afraid,” he added. “I’m allergic.”
Pascuzzo was already jogging across the front lawn. The computer programmer stood, his heart racing, and looked up into the graceful tangles of the pear tree. The white parrot gazed down at him, his mohawk rising and falling, unfolding like a Japanese fan, his black eyes all pupil. It was unsettling to Johnson, making eye contact with a bird like that. He looked away, up into the sky, where dark clouds were gathering. Everything fell into shade as the sun disappeared behind them.
The Yellow Bartlett tried her hardest to soothe the bird, reassuring him that her branches were a safe space, a comfortable place to relax. Where is there to hurry off to, she tried to tell him—here is the best place to be. But unfortunately, the language barrier between birds and trees was a difficult one to scale, and the parrot did not understand her.
“I love you Martha,” the bird said, whistling and screeching. Then he lifted his great white wings and swooped down from the tree.
“McCall!” Johnson cried out, pleading. “Don’t go.”
The bird flew sprawling loops over Johnson’s head—one, two, three loops—and then he cut between the two houses and disappeared into the backyard. Johnson tore after him, adrenaline reentering his blood stream, soft grass sliding under his feet. He felt the first few drops of rain hit the back of his neck and knew he wasn’t going to be fast enough, that there was nothing he could do.
By the time he reached the backyard, the bird was nowhere to be seen. He held his breath and listened, but heard no sounds of clicking or whistling or laughter. The bird was gone. Johnson hung his head. He took off his glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his shirt. He trudged slowly back to the pear tree, timid and heartbroken. He sat down and leaned up against her trunk, while rain pattered around them.
Pascuzzo came charging out the front door, the net trailing behind him. “I got it,” he called out, before his brain had a chance to register what he saw before him.
“Oh no,” he said, dropping the net, hatred and sorrow and fear boiling over inside his brain. “McCall! You lost McCall! You lost him, Johnson. You goddamn coward. Afraid of bees.” He spat on the ground near Johnson’s feet, then disappeared into his house, slamming the door so hard that one of the stained glass panels cracked.
Johnson felt tears in his eyes and hurried back inside his own house.
The rain came down hard and steady, rushing through drainpipes and gutters. Both men worried about their wives, out in the storm, but knew that they would be inside, somewhere safe, until it blew over. The tree worried about herself (she was always anxious when the sky turned dark in the daytime) and about the bird, who was out in the world for the first time, alone.
The wind picked up, knocking trash cans into the road, shaking the leaves of every tree, tearing them from skinny green stems. Thunder growled in the distance, and the wind blew it closer and closer with every moment. Pyrus felt her arms whip back and forth—handfuls of pears shook loose, dropping and rolling across the wet ground.
Stop this, she demanded, but the storm did not yield.
Lighting sliced through the gray sky, brilliant and terrible. Wind chimes played steady, ominous songs. Rain fell in sheets. Please don’t let it hit me, please don’t let it hit me, the tree said to herself, over and over, cowering from the lightning as the storm raged on above her.
This was the third thing that happened.
* * *
The sun shone bright and forgetful the next morning. There was a strange stillness in the air, and birds sang quietly. Johnson was up early, out of bed by 6 AM. He’d had a hard time sleeping the night before. All he could think about was Pascuzzo. He hadn’t even tried to tell his wife about it. But maybe Timothy would understand. He was allergic to bees too—genetics.
Johnson strode carefully down his front walkway to get the Sunday paper from the blue plastic mailbox. He gasped when he saw the pear tree, touched a hand to his mouth. One of the branches had been knocked down the storm. It lay on his side of the property line, sprawled and disheveled, looking broken and sad. One long, knotted branch that had split into smaller and smaller ones, with a bushy swath of green leaves and the yellow bumps of pears.
Was it possible? Johnson wondered. Was this the same branch that the bird had been standing on? He could have sworn it was. He hoisted the heavy side of it onto his shoulder and dragged the fallen soldier to his woodshed. Yellow Bartlett, while shaken by her loss and by the storm, was feeling an enormous sense of relief and gratitude. She also felt a little bit cocky in the triumph of survival—I am going to live forever, she told herself.
Johnson used a small handsaw to take off three inches or so from the base of the branch. He grabbed one of his wood-handled whittling knives and cut away the bark. Soon he broke through to the soft, smooth wood underneath that fell away from his knife like wax. It was still a little bit damp. He set it in the sun on the windowsill to dry. I know what I’ll make, he thought: a little wooden parrot, for Pascuzzo. To show him that I’m sorry, that I want to be a good neighbor. Like some sort of olive branch.
And then Johnson changed his mind—because that would’ve been too goddamn sentimental, and Pascuzzo probably would have hated it anyway and thrown it right into the trash. He probably would’ve laughed in his face. I’ll just make a bird for myself then, he thought, and went to work whittling. A few blocks away, a white parrot landed in an elderly woman’s granite bird bath, and she cried, because she thought she was seeing an angel.