American Sweetgum

By Ken Mohnkern


I’m too old for tree climbing, but it turns out being aloft is good for thinking and Kate wants me to think. The sun has disappeared behind the horizon, though there’s still a bit of warmth in the sky beyond the city lights. The branch I’m sitting on has grown uncomfortable. The tree is an American Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, and its star-shaped leaves and spiny fruit balls bob around my head in the breeze. I’ve walked within an arm’s reach of it hundreds of times on my daily commute and always take pleasure in the roundness of its crown and its seasonal color changes. It’s become one of my favorite trees.

This morning, though, a dead boy was hanging in it.

When I arrived at my office, even before I could even sit at my desk, Sandra sidled into my doorway flanked by her two drooling Saint Bernards. “You’re late, Thompson.” She called all the faculty by last name, like a drill sergeant in a movie. She stood with her hands on her hips, wearing a stone expression and a plunging neckline. To my eye it had been a long time since that had been a good look on her.

“Sandra, you won’t believe what I just saw. This boy–”

“That’s strike one,” she barked, then she and herdogs were gone before I could say anything more.

Sandra’s been department head barely five months now and you wouldn’t recognize it as a department of Veterinary Medicine anymore. She replaced the old “Just Be Reasonable” guidelines with a list of strict rules enforced with a Three Strikes policy. Nobody knew what would happen if we collected three strikes, and nobody wanted to find out.

I called Kate. She had today off from her job downtown at Troy’s Shoes. I needed to talk to someone about what I’d seen, but then again, maybe not over the phone. I suggested we meet at the tea shop later on. I often walk down there to read, write, grade student papers. It’s a good ritual.

“I’d love to,” Kate said. “How spontaneous of you.”

We’ve discussed spontaneity. She says I have none. I say I appreciate my routines. They keep me prompt. Getting a late start in the morning can throw off my mood for the whole day, let alone after seeing that boy dangling from the tree.

Beside me there’s a white rope burn in the bark. This must be the exact limb the kid jumped from. Some time ago a squirrel climbed the trunk right past me, and went stone still when it noticed me. There’s a lot of activity around the tree now, even in the twilight. It’s surprising to see the number of people who pass. None have looked up, though I imagine some had been diverted from the path this morning. Some had maybe even seen the boy.

Someone’s approaching now in the dimness. I go still like the squirrel and he passes below without seeing me. He’s humming.

People. They’re so oblivious.

When I was walking to work this morning my path was blocked by police tape at the top of the hill. It formed an irregular yellow polygon around the Sweetgum. I stepped off the well-traveled path into grass I’d never before walked through.

A campus cop stood at one corner of the detour. He was an older man. Maybe a retired cop. I remember he snapped and unsnapped his holster absently as I approached. He was looking at the tree, so I looked too. A few city police were standing around closer to its trunk, looking into its branches.

And there, above their heads, is where I saw the kid’s feet, hanging in the leaves.

Now I wonder how they got him down. Did someone climb up here and cut the rope? Did they use a ladder? A cherry-picker? I imagine paramedics and police on the ground reaching for the boy’s feet and steadying him, first by the ankles, then shins, as he is lowered, until finally his shoes gently touch the ground.

My leg is going numb so I shift my weight. I almost lose my balance and grab for support. I end up hugging the trunk. I whisper to the Sweetgum, “Did you do that?”

I unknot my tie and toss it. That’s another one of Sandra’s new rules: a dress code. It hangs up on a twig halfway down.

Kiva Teas claims the best collection of loose teas in the city, yet Kate always ordered the worst offering on their exhaustive menu. She swirled the little bag of fruity chaff in her mug, lifted it and let it dangle and drip, before dropping it into the water again. Steeping time meant nothing to her. We’ve been together nearly half a year, and I’ve never told her how much this bugs me.

My Lapsang Souchong was a smoky, earthy blend of fine Chinese teas. I kept an eye on the sand timer the barista had provided. Four minutes. Any longer and it would be undrinkable.

Kate wrinkled her nose. “You and your stinky tea.”

I took a long sniff at the teapot’s spout. “Yum.”

“So, why’d you want to meet?” She broke a corner off her scone then scrutinized me. “You okay?”

“Well,” I said, “I saw something this morning.”

I lifted the infuser from my teapot and let it sink back in. Then I told her what I’d seen this morning. The police tape, the campus cop, the kid’s feet in the tree.

“My god,” she said. “How horrible.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Then the campus cop noticed the strangest thing. Turns out I was wearing the same shoes as the kid.”

She still held the piece of scone in the air in front of her mouth. “And?” she said.

“And nothing. By then I was late for work.”

Kate set the scone piece back onto its plate, looking at me oddly. I thought about telling her about Sandra giving me a strike but she spoke up first.

“I’m sorry, Clayton. You must be really upset.” She nodded toward my timer, which had expired.

I removed the infuser from my pot and poured a cup. It was over-steeped, and now tepid. Time seemed to be against me today.

I nodded back to her, unsure whether I was upset or not.

“Who do you think the boy was?” Kate asked. She always needed more details.

I shrugged. I didn’t know. Just some kid with the same shoes as me.

“Horrible. Horrible.” Kate sipped her tea. She glanced around at the nearby tables. “I thought about suicide once,” she said quietly.“Back in high school. I think it’s normal when you’re young with that mix of adolescent hormones and lack of perspective, don’t you think? It’s a miracle more kids don’t do it. Did you ever think about it?”

I slurped at my bitter tea. I said, “Me? You kidding?” I swirled the tea residue around the bottom of my cup and watched it circle and settle, as if it held my future. When I set the cup down, a little heavy-handed, the leaf bits inside went every which way.

Kate said, “Something else is on your mind, isn’t it?”

“Well,” I said, “I think I’m done at work.”

“Okay. You wanna come over to my place?”

“No, I mean done done. Sandra’s pissed at me and I don’t think she’s gonna let it go.”

Kate said, “Just for being late?”

“No, not just that. She caught me playing with her dog.”

Kate wouldn’t leave it alone. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, not playing, exactly.”

Sandra has a third dog, a little terrier named William who must have been lying under my chair. He probably came in to get away from the St. Bernards. Anyway, I pushed back from my desk and stepped on him. He yelped then disappeared far under my desk.

I got down on my hands and knees. “Little rat. Where’d you come from?” I reached toward him but stopped. “Scared me to death, ya mutt. Get out of there.”

William wouldn’t budge.

I peered at him. Animals. You can’t trust anything with teeth and claws. Especially not the little ones.

William made himself smaller still. Its leash trailed from his fine leather collar. I tugged it and William hunkered into a leaden weight. A dark puddle spread beneath.

“Dammit!” Now I’d have to clean that up.

I gave the leash a sharp yank and jerked the dog into the air, still dripping pee. Its eyes went wide and frantic. It was silent, but showed its teeth. They were surprisingly white. Sandra must take him to a doggy dentist.

“Spoiled mutt,” I said.

It hung, kicking and coughing and snapping its jaws, panicky. Maybe even angry. Was this what the boy had looked like at the end of his rope? I studied William at arm’s length. The hair on its body stood up, yet what held my attention most were the eyes. They never left mine. While the rest of William’s little body was fighting me, his eyes looked like they were pleading for mercy. The boy’s eyes might have had the same look. Had he changed his mind after pushing off of the limb? Pleaded with God? With the Sweetgum?

Finally I lowered William to the floor and let go of the leash. The dog shot out the door, right between Sandra’s feet.

Within minutes, I was in her office, the door closed behind us. She threatened to fire me despite tenure, to sue me for William’s therapy bills—

“Wait a minute,” said Kate. “You hung her dog?”

“No. It wasn’t like that.” I wanted to say it was an accident, but it wasn’t, exactly. “I don’t know what came over me. I wasn’t thinking. Or I was thinking about something else.”

“You hung her dog.”

“No. You don’t understand.”

This was going bad quickly. “Forget it,” I said. I stood and Kate caught my arm.

“Sit.” She tightened her grip until I obeyed. “Stay.” She examined me closely, as if for the first time.

“See, Kate, the dog must have looked just like the—”

“I understand.” She looked away. “It was unintentional, I’m sure. But look… You’re just interested in the physicality of the thing. Not what caused the poor boy to do it. No consideration for who he was or what he felt.” Then she looked at me, hard. “Yes, I guess you are done there.”

Of course she was right.

She said, “I don’t think you should come over after all.”

“I thought I could talk to you about this. I’m— I’m upset, OK?”

“What’s upsetting? That the boy died or that you’re in trouble with your boss?”

I hesitated, but I swear I was thinking.

Meanwhile Kate got up and pushed out the door. I should have stopped her or gone after her, but again I hesitated. It felt like I’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time all day.

The truth is I had thought about suicide once. Just a couple years ago, though, before I’d met Kate. I remembered a great sense of confusion about my mental state. I never thought of it as depression. I felt no despair. Instead, it was just an exhaustion that took up residence within, this overwhelming desire to sleep and avoid facing another day. I’m not even sure it was suicide I was considering. I got through that time, though. Somehow.

But Kate was wrong, too. I had been thinking a lot about that boy, all day. Thinking about his life, and mine. Like why I’d decided on vet school to begin with. Sometimes I think I should have studied botany. Or become an arborist. Or even a groundskeeper. While I’ve had only one pet in my life, a short-lived goldfish, I’ve always surrounded myself with plants. My apartment’s practically a forest. Potted plants in every room. Orchids, ferns, and neatly trimmed Kentucky Blue Grass in a shallow dish on my coffee table. A large Chamaedorea by the couch that was a gift from Kate.

Overhead, neatly arranged woodpecker holes line the trunk of the Sweetgum. I smack its bark as if it were a horse’s haunch. “So,” I say, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

It doesn’t respond, of course. Nature is indifferent.

I peer through its near branches then down the trunk toward its roots. The grass below looks trodden, the dirt dark and moist but not muddy.

I’m not so far above the earth, maybe only thirty odd feet. Yet the air smells cleaner up here, lighter. Maybe the kid felt this way too, near the end, more alive than ever. Lightweight. Distant. He must have dangled his feet just like I am. This is very nearly what he saw early this morning. The same shoes and all.

Through the leaves there’s a clear view of the university lights, the neighborhood, the city, and the far hills beyond, all lit up like a holiday. What will I do now? My future feels like a blank whiteboard, freshly erased. A swirl of tea leaves in a cup.

In the dimming light I spot a nearby twig, stripped of its leaves. The boy must have sat here a while and fidgeted. I tug at a leaf but it refuses to yield. I wonder what the boy’s name was, and it just pops into my head: Henry. He looks like a Henry. And I realize I’m imagining his face now. A slender, smooth-skinned babyface with brown eyes that meet mine but glance away quickly. He wears glasses. He’s smiling. He has a crooked front tooth. He makes jokes other people won’t get. I like the kid. I like Henry. I wish I could have talked to Henry.

My first question would be, I imagine, why he’d jumped.

And his smile would disappear. “That question stinks, Thompson. Here’s a better one: Why did you lie to Kate?”

I’d shrug. “She doesn’t need to know about that suicide stuff. It’s private.”

He’d pluck a spiny fruit ball from a twig and watch it fall. “Right.”

“Anyway, it’s ancient history,” I’d say.

I hadn’t even thought about it myself for quite a while. Not until the campus cop had pointed out Henry’s shoes. I felt adrift, my least favorite feeling. Adrift. I realized just how much Kate kept me anchored. And how comforting an anchor can be.

Henry would still be dropping spiny balls. Ignoring me by now. I’d say, “You know, Henry, you can survive more than you think you can.”

He would glare at me then and say, “You think I don’t know that? I’ve survived more than you ever will.” Then he’d adjust his seat. “You want a platitude, Thompson? What do you think of this one: We’re capable of greater things than we think.”

I would nod. Of course.

Then he’d continue: “And worse things, too.”

Funny, I’d never thought of it that way.

“You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Thompson?”

I would shut up then. Henry would do what he had to.

Ken Mohnkern lives in Pittsburgh and designs websites for a living. He is published in Progenitor, and is working on a chapbook of 100-word stories.