“The Tree Near Calliope”

 

The moon had been practicing its abracadabra in the back corner of itself during both its waxing and waning phases. The dark is a fine place to levitate or pull mysterious objects from a hat. Though it seems very old to us, the moon is only eight years of age. And like many eight-year-olds, it had found a book of Easy to Do Magic Tricks at a rummage sale it stumbled upon when its raving, rambling arms ambled over the sky. It was lucky that day, with 50 cents exactly in its pocket—a two for one deal for the magic book and the other eight-year-old staple Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The moon for two months had combined the oeuvre of scary stories with the simple tactics of magic to plan a fantastic disappearing act. A great disappearing act that it would perform with the audacity of a child and the elegance congenital to every celestial body. An act the world, for the most part, would gasp and gape and worry about, absenting those who lived in the city.

The city only ever looked at the moon as a second glance. It was a shiny nickel on the cement pavement or illumed in building windows. It was a thing someone brought up at a party that suddenly everyone remembered, like old cartoons or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Perhaps it did its act too early in the night or too late in November to be noticed by anyone breathing in the city. Except for Albert who lived on the East side. He couldn’t attribute what happened to the moon of course; in fact, he’d attribute it only to the same annoying machine he considered to be the whole of life, but the moon could at least take comfort knowing it played its hand in Albert’s night.

For nearly a week and half prior, Albert had spent his evenings and nights on his balcony staring at a tree across the sidewalk.

The tree was unabashed and it angered Albert every, single day. See, this far into November, every other tree with a good sense of propriety and how the world works had lost every last leaf. This tree, though, held on to its own like a bright orange cape. Not even a single leaf had fallen; Albert checked on this fact every morning. Then he’d puh puh the tree and think about it all day. Over the water fountain, puh puh. On the streetcar, puh. He’d puh so long and often one might mistake it for a purr or even a ventilator.

He could’ve just torn the leaves down in a fury, and it’s for sure he dreamed about this at least three nights out of every ten. But Albert believed that something should become self-respecting, one way or another. He’d guard the tree like a gargoyle from the balcony. Anytime children stood under it and reached arms up he’d scream at them to stay away, “Get away from that! That tree’s gotta learn to lose its leaves itself!” The kids, confused, would back away and tell stories about the strange man on the fire escape. They’d gather near the corners to watch him stare. He at the tree, they at him, and not a wonder at all how no one was looking up to see the moon had gone for the night from the city.

But though everyone was staring at something or another except at the moon, during the precise moment of its disappearing, a pedestrian near the tree flicked a cigarette that landed exactly upright in the crack of the sidewalk under the tree. And it remained there. If the fully clothed tree had made Albert beside himself, there’s nothing to tell of this disposed cigarette, now as dogged and rude as the tree. Double-teamed, Albert said to himself, who on his nightly guard had of course seen the incident happen. The orange tip of the cigarette in the dark was the same shade of the leaves in the light, and called as loudly.

Because he stayed up to watch the cigarette drizzle out over long hours—while the moon huffed and sighed its magic act unbeknownst to the city—Albert was not in front of the mirror. In front of the mirror was where Albert used to spend most of his time. Recently, it had been divided between the mirror and the tree outside. Albert’s skin looked like what all the proper trees did in late October and early November. If Albert’s skeleton could be said to be a trunk, his skin was a cacophony of differing melanin, resembling the autumnal falling of leaves from limb. The skin was made with colors that did not even make sense on the human body: reds, oranges, greens, even.  It had caused an expected angst of childhood and adolescence, and formed into self-analytical obsession as he got older and older. The wrinkles made sense to him that gathered there; he could name them by incident or person. This one’s when I hit that man on Calliope, this one for when I left my mother in the hospital, that one’s Nel, that one’s my dog Danger. But the skin itself, warped but unchanged in colors, nagged at him and made him recite to himself each night, it ain’t proper, ain’t proper. But when the tree across the street kept not losing its sheath, Albert found the one thing less proper than him. He watched it more. He watched himself less. Now, while he could not watch the moon if he wanted to, he watched the tree and the cigarette.

Because a great finale requires respiration and return, the moon had decided to end its disappearing act around 1:15 in the morning. At 1:15 in the morning, Albert saw the last of the cherry on the cigarette lop off in the breeze, though the stem still stood upright. The breeze also kicked up at the branches and Albert saw one leaf twiddle and twirl in wild circles, aching to come off. Albert held his breath, and the moon was pleased (albeit naïve) to find that one person in the city was anxiously holding their breath at the point of its return. As a thank you (albeit ill-construed) the moon came back shining like a silver plate, large and overwhelming. Big enough that it encompassed the entire patch (though a small patch) of sky that Albert could see from the fire escape. The cigarette flicked out, the leaf held on, and Albert’s eyes widened at the sight of the shining in the sky. Now, talk about it, talk about it, where have you been all night? Albert said to the moon. The moon flickered out what to itself was a bow but to Albert only a semblance of a cloud.

Crawling back through the window into his apartment, Albert said to himself: I tell you, it’s becoming a world for the strange, isn’t it? And he walked to his bed, right past the mirror, without thinking to look in it.

About Andi Boyd

Andi Boyd was raised in south Louisiana, and she currently resides in San Antonio, Texas. She holds an MFA from Texas State University. Her fiction has previously appeared in Black Warrior Review, Juked, Drunken Boat, Pembroke, and others.