My plum tree is dying.
When I moved into this house the tree was about 30 years old, and so was I. It was cold that October so its sprawling branches slept–no leaves, no fruit. I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was, only that its bent trunk made it look like a hunchback next to the soldier straight cedar twins guarding my gate.
Spring arrived and little white blossoms hinted at the tree’s identity, but I would have to wait until summer to see what fruit it would bear. Meanwhile, I got about the business of meeting my neighbors. Across the street lived a middle-aged piano teacher who drank too much and kept to herself, curtains drawn. The old guy next store was a World War II bomber pilot who was quite friendly but rarely home. He had a girlfriend up the highway, the old dog.
Next to him lived an elderly couple, the wife a Hungarian refugee during that same war. She invited me to dinner. “Do you have any food allergies or restrictions?” she asked.
“Well, I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t want you to plan around me,” I said.
“Oh, that’s no trouble. My son-in-law is vegetarian. I cook for him all of the time,” she said.
I walked over to their house on the appointed night. The husband let me in and sat me down in a living room that hadn’t been redecorated since 1965. “Do you like music? I’ll put on some music. We like classical, do you like classical?”
“Classical sounds great,” I said.
“How are you fixed for life insurance? I was a life insurance man for 40 years. Think about your kids–what would happen to them if you died? Life insurance is the best investment you’ll ever make.” he said.
“Don’t bother him with that, he’s here to have a good time,” she said, and then she launched into a monologue about the deprivations she suffered in the refugee camp. “And people would have sex right there in the room, just inches away from the rest of us while we tried to sleep,” she whispered. That was the punchline to a story she spent 50 years polishing.
The old man disappeared into the backyard while his wife spoke. A few minutes later he returned and announced that dinner was ready. We moved from the living room to the dining room, the classical record still spinning. The wife placed a little salad on my plate. A long barbecue fork emerged over my shoulder, an enormous slab of grilled meat hanging from its tines. The steak landed on my plate with a wet slap. “What are you going to do now, Mr. Vegetarian?” he asked. I ate the steak.
When my plums ripened I gathered them in buckets, pans, boxes. I filled my refrigerator and still there were more. I took a bucket of plums to the piano teacher. She thanked me but she looked bothered, as if I had handed her an obligation. She was probably just drunk. I knocked on the bomber pilot’s door, but he wasn’t home. Inside, the hose leading to his washing machine was broken and the house slowly filled with water, but I didn’t know that. He didn’t, either, until he came home from his girlfriend’s house a week later. He had enough to deal with without my plums.
I even gave the insurance man and his wife some plums, and I didn’t even say, “What are you going to do now, Mr. Ribeye?”
My kids were raised with that tree. When my son was little w sat beneath it and ate fruit straight from its limbs until our hands were sticky and our bellies full. He was too short to reach the plums, so he pointed to the ones he wanted and I picked them for him. My daughter climbed onto its hunched back when she was maybe three or so and got stuck. I heard her screaming for help and found her hugging the trunk like a sloth. If she just let go she would have landed on her feet in the soft grass, but she didn’t know that so I grabbed her and set her gently on the ground.
Years passed. The neighbors died. My kids grew up and got on with their lives. The sorry hunchback grew older, more brittle, forgotten by my kids and pitied by me. “What happened to you, old man?” I asked. “You used to be strong. You used to be productive. You used to matter.” There were no answers, but it was a rhetorical question anyway.
There’s fruit on the plum tree’s limbs again this year but that tired, bent trunk can’t bear the weight anymore. I don’t know why it bothered, probably because it doesn’t know what else to do. It’s a plum tree, after all. Bearing fruit is its only purpose.
My plum tree sags closer and closer to the ground, its very foundation splintering as it tries to survive, tries to thrive, tries to eke out just one more summer before it is tossed onto the trash pile, mulched, and forgotten.
I don’t know. Maybe it should have invested in a good life insurance policy.