The Tulip Tree

Ellie was glad to be going home. Though she frequently told herself that she had her own life with her husband and her two children and that her home was wherever she was with them, she still thought of her father’s house as home. She was tired of getting there, of course–tired of driving, tired of Tidy Inn motels and Econo-oil service stations. She was tired of answering Nat and Emily’s questions about who would be where they were going and when they would be there, when their father would join them and why they were leaving Boston when it had been just fine with them. The air conditioner had stopped working two days ago in Richmond, and they wanted to know why she couldn’t fix it. They repeatedly announced that they themselves would help her, and they showed her their little hands for proof. Despite their impatience, the further south they got, the more their weariness gave way to the anticipation not just of rest but of joy. And for Ellie, even the old pleasure of being in her own body had begun to quicken in her again. She was secretly glad that it was hot as hell and they had no air conditioning.

When she turned the corner into the long driveway leading up the hill to her father’s house, the mingled smells of wisteria and honeysuckle and gardenia filled her head, reminding her of a time in her life when she had marked the hours of the day and the seasons of the year by scents and light. The voices of her children brought her to her motherly senses. She had stopped the car; they were there. Nathan and Emily ripped their seat belts off and, whooping and giggling, lunged for the doors. She suddenly wondered for the millionth time at how they had altered her relation to the world¬. All her experience now, even memory itself, was somehow bracketed by their voices, and their presence mingled with her own in an intimate way that sometimes frightened her and made her feel not quite herself.
“My, but they sound like two little Yankees,” Grandmother Beauchere said when she came out to greet them.

Ellie laughed. “They’ve grown up in Boston, Gran Beau. There was no way to avoid it.”
As if to banish unthinkable alien influences, Gran Beau made a little humming sound and said, “Ellen, you’re looking a little pale.” This was always the prelude to a meal. It didn’t matter what time of day it was or whether one had just that minute finished lunch or dinner. Gran Beau was absolutely positive that people who were out of her sight did not eat properly and would sicken and die if she did not feed them. “I’ve just made some tea cakes,” Gran Beau said.

Nathan and Emily were amazed and pleased with everything, and more than anything amazed and pleased with Gran Beau, who had heretofore been a mythical figure whose name elicited sighs and groans from their own father, who had had to pass her inspection in his time. But Gran Beau really was grand¬-¬-tall and as certain of her body as if she were twenty-three instead of seventy-three. There never was and never had been anything around her that she did not inspect, pass judgement on, and mysteriously control. Everyone in her family had learned how to evade her influence to some extent, but such evasion required so much tact and wit that nobody could keep it up for very long. Children, however, could freely yield themselves up to Gran Beau’s presence because their simplicity exempted them from evasion.

Gran Beau was interrogating Ellie about her life in Boston. Weakened by the effort of prevaricating, Ellie was on the verge of getting on her knees in tears and confessing that her life in Boston had been no life to speak of at all, when her father got home from the office and rescued her. Perhaps it was because he knew too well what it was to squirm beneath Gran Beau’s scrutiny, or perhaps it was because he had had seven children of his own under one roof at one time and too much knowledge can drive a man mad, but he never forced his children to give an explanation of themselves. He was a thoughtful, sensitive man, and being such, he knew a great deal that did not have to be spoken. Beyond what he knew instinctively and what was willingly told him, he did not inquire.
A momentary flicker of something like apology passed across his eyes when he saw her¬-¬-she had never noticed this until she was an adult herself, and it infuriated her in a fleeting way¬-¬-but his presence was so comforting, so solid, that after embracing him she stood leaning against his chest weeping and laughing in turn till Emily and Nathan’s shyness was transformed into a voracious demand for affection. Her father held them and kissed them and teased them, having, in that way of his, won their affection forever, immediately, without question, and so thoroughly that Ellie had consciously to let her pleasure override a pang of jealousy.

While Gran Beau and the children inspected a trunkful of old toys in Albert’s old room, the only room left that was still designated as having belonged to the children, Ellie and her father sat on the front porch and drank iced tea. Her father, Nathan Edmund Beauchere, as Gran Beau called him in fits of pique, was a large man, and this fact, as frequently happens, always overwhelmed any sense that an observer, even a familiar one, might have of the subtle and rapid way in which his emotions were reflected in his eyes. There was a timid look there just now, but Ellie could not or would not see it. He was there, he was there, and for a few moments the old thing happened: she could not think in his presence or feel anything but a sort of relief. They did what people in the grip of intense emotions always do–they spoke of this and that, and when speaking of this and that threatened to be speaking of other things, they fell silent.

He was about to point out a new addition to his kingdom of plants and flowers when he turned to her and said, “AlisonJohnAlbert. MacclesfieldEllenCassandraLucette.” It was a habit he had acquired since all of them left home–as if all his children were one child taking years to come into being and having one name. He never left Albert’s name out either, and Albert had been dead for over twenty years. There was a brief pause in which Ellie had to restrain her laughter, and she responded with a wry “Yes,sir” when he pointed out to her that he was only fifty-two years old and if she had had seven children she wouldn’t be able to keep up with their names either. Now it was over, and they were like old friends. He adopted the man-to-man manner of their old the-weirdness-of-the-world routine whereby they had always, even when she was quite young, mutually reassured themselves that they were the most reasonable people in the world.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Every year I feel like I ought to be smarter than the year before. And then something happens like your cousin Lance shooting himself in the foot or like old Dr. Cowley leaving his family and taking up hang-gliding and I feel like I’m at the beginning again. Hang-gliding, mind you. Something he had to leave the state to do.”
They shook their heads in mutual agreement. Yes, sir, mankind is strange, the whole lot, stranger every year, they silently agreed. “But, Daddy, did it ever occur to you that maybe they know something we don’t?” she said.

“Like what?” he said.

She was on the verge of saying that she didn’t know or making something up when Emily and Nathan set up a general clamor from the house and she and her father went in. In the presence of her father she had forgotten about her children. She clenched her fists: she must never forget about them, never.

In Albert’s old room Gran Beau was trying to demonstrate the proper operation of a top, but she couldn’t get it to spin. Em and Nat, in that presumptuous way that children have, were loudly doubting her credibility. And Gran Beau, in that way that old people have, was wondering aloud why they wanted to play with such an old thing anyway. Her father sat down on the floor with them, and, while Ellie and Gran Beau stood in the doorway looking on, he explained step by step the winding of the string and the principles of physics involved in the completed motion. Gran Beau threw her hands up and went to her kitchen. Ellie remained standing in the doorway, suddenly overwhelmed by memories of her dead brother Albert, the “big darling,” as their mother, Margaret Beauchere had always called him.

Albert, Albert. Ellie looked at his bed–it got smaller every time she saw it–and everything else disappeared. With the silent approval of the elder siblings, Alison and John, the younger ones–Ellie, Mac, and Cassie–had taken turns sneaking into Albert’s bed at night to sleep with him until their mother caught them at it and wept and their father gave them a long lecture about how Albert was sick and needed his rest. Ellie had not understood until much later that all the adults were waiting for Albert to die, while she and her brothers and sisters were waiting for him to live.

She remembered being absolutely convinced that the sickness was in his bedcovers and that if they lay close to him long and hard enough, they could somehow draw it off. And then he would swing them on his arms again and play checkers with them and laugh. But one day he was pale and still. When she had put his hand on her head as if to force him or trick him into once more stroking her hair, his hand was cold and unyielding.

On the day of the funeral she and Macclesfield and Cassie–Lucette was yet to speak, and Alison and John had become suddenly solemn and grown-up–had one big question for their parents: why wasn’t it raining? If Albert wasn’t coming back, why was the sun still shining? And furthermore, why was it spring? Afterwards, still in their Sunday clothes, they made the secret game–Looking for Albert–but they could not say his name until they found him, so they called it “Looking For ______.” When they asked Alison or John where Albert was, they would say, “Heaven, I guess. Don’t ask Mama that now.” And soon the game was called “Heaven I Guess.”

Even after school started in the fall, they spent their secret time rambling through uninhabited spaces in the house or the small dark spaces beneath trees and behind bushes in the yard and the woods. When they found a particularly secret and holy spot, the three of them would whisper “Heaven-I-Guess” and sit in silence, eyes closed, thinking, waiting for a vision on the spot. They never found Albert, but they were sure he was there, and their certainty was further entrenched when shortly after his death his tree blossomed just as it always had.

Because Nathan and Margaret Beauchere were modern parents, they had their children two years apart; because they had secret mystical leanings, they planted a flowering tree for each child. Albert’s tree, like Albert himself, had always seemed the most mysterious and beautiful. It was a tulip poplar, planted at the forefront of a stand of pin oaks near a stream where their mother had let them bathe sometimes in summer when it was very, very hot. It didn’t look like a tree that should have flowers, but there they were late in spring every year when all other trees had given themselves over wholly to simple greenness, as if the leaves themselves had wished to be flowers, as if noon or midnight, the magic times of day, had given them their wish. She and Mac knew that if Albert was anywhere, he was near that tree. Therefore, it was the only place that was off-limits in Looking-For- ______-Heaven-I-Guess: if they went there they could not go on looking for him, and if they could not go on looking, he wouldn’t be there.

She had forgotten about her children and her father. Suddenly there they were on the floor in front of her inspecting cap guns and cowboy hats and collections of fairy tales and photographs that were ragged and yellow around the edges. “Be sure you put everything back in its place,” she said, including, without thinking about it, her father in her command. He looked up at her from the old album of leaves he’d been looking through, and he laughed. In the brief silence that followed, she knew, and knew that he knew, that things didn’t really have places where they were supposed to be simply because they were supposed to be wherever they were. Albert’s room was a place where things were where they belonged, and it was unnatural: Albert was dead, and the carefullest arrangement of things in the world would never bring him back. And this was so for all the lost and fleeting things of life, for all of life itself. “Put everything back in its place.” What an impudent order to give children in the midst of play! What a presumptuous demand to make of the world! Because she did not want to share this knowledge with her father, she hastily said, “I just don’t want them to cause trouble for Gran Beau.”

Her father laughed again, rising to put his hand on her shoulder. “You sound like Gran Beau,” he said, “and besides, ‘trouble’ is when she’s happiest. Then she can put us all in our places.” They both laughed then because they could hear Gran Beau rattling pots in the kitchen, putting everything back in its place. Still, as she and her father went on to chat about Bob’s transfer and when he would fly in to Blufftown the next day and what she planned to do in Biloxi, Ellie could not stop thinking that her father knew that things did not have places where they belonged. If he knew, then he might have known all along, even before she was born. And if one knew, how could one have children and cast them into the uncertainties of life? It was monstrous: to cast them not only into the myriad accidents of childhood but into adulthood and the possibility of knowing and remembering in a place where there was no parent for comfort.

Without being aware of it, she had desperately wanted the home that her father represented for her to be an arrangement of immutable objects that would somehow comfort her and undo the anxiety she felt about being a parent herself. She had not wanted to think that everything inexorably changed. She was angry with her father, angry, as if he could have done anything about anything. Why couldn’t he have held it still for her? Why couldn’t things be still long enough for the old habit of hope to be restored to her? Why could she not find one still moment in which she could make things feel real again? And then she knew another thing that she did and did not want to know–that the hand on her shoulder, the face that gazed with her at her own children was human, that her father was a man who had had his own children, his own marriage, his own life, that for all their intimacy she did not know him at all, that she had not recognized him until that moment as the unknowable thing that he, like all humans, was.

“I think I’ll,” he said.

“Go to your papers and scotch,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, and looked at her quizzically for a moment. “I’ll join you in a few minutes.”

The hallway was cool and dim. Her father was in the living room, padding around in his socks, settling in to read the newspapers and drink his evening cocktail. Her grandmother was in the kitchen sliding plates around and running water and doing things with flour, potatoes, chicken, God knows what. Gran Beau had never approved of cocktails. When Nathan and Emily joined Ellie in a ragged spot of light on the porch. Nathan tugged at her skirt and said, “What were you thinking about? Back there?”
She knelt and pushed his hair from his eyes. “I was thinking that I have loved you all your life.”

He flushed with pleasure, but he was seven and he pulled away from her a bit. “No, really,” he said.

“Really. Really,” Emily chanted, wrapping her arms around her mother’s neck and hanging on her back like a little monkey. “Really, really,” she said, laughing.

“You too, little menace,” Ellie said, kissing Emily’s hand.

Nathan tugged at her skirt again and said, “Who’s Albee?”

“Albert,” she said. “He was my brother.”
Squeezing her mother tigher, Emily laughed and said, “Like Nat is my brother?”
“Yes,” Ellie said.

“Well, where is he,” Nathan said, “and will he play with us?”
“No,” Ellie said, “Albert is dead, sweetie.”
“What is that, Mommy,” he said.
“Well,” she said, “it’s kind of like going away.”
“Like going to Biloxi?” Em said.
“Not exactly,” Ellie said. And she was on the verge of getting really wrought up when Nathan, with that sense of perspective that only children have, shouted, “A cat!” and let go of her skirt to rush away to interrogate the great yellow tabby who was sauntering past the porch as if he had never taken a meal there.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Gran Beau came out onto the porch to look at the watercolor sketches of Nathan and Emily that Ellie had brought as a gift. Gran Beau peered over her spectacles at them and finally commented. “Well, I reckon you got little Nathan right well, but there’s no way you’re going to get the color of Emily’s skin. I’ve never seen anything like it on a child–almost like you could see right through it if you looked hard enough. Must’ve come from Bob’s side of the family,” she said. “The Beaucheres have always been thick-skinned people, tough as nails. Or maybe it came from your mother.”

Ellie took a little too long trying to decide if this was a challenge to defend her mother or a bit of banter. She knew it was the former, but now it was too late, and she knew that she’d be grateful later that she did not point out then and there that Gran Beau herself was a Beauchere by marriage, not blood. “Your mother,” Gran Beau said. “When did you hear from her last?” And Ellie had to think about another thing she’d been avoiding.

“Two weeks ago,” she said. “She was in the Yucatan.”

“Well, is she going to settle down? Is she going to come back? You’d think at least she’d let your father know if she’s abandoned him forever or not.”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said, putting the portraits back in their folder, thinking she would really like to strangle Gran Beau, who thought and probably always had thought that if there was anything amiss in her son’s family it was because he had married a wire-haired, dark-eyed woman from the Coast. How could Gran Beau wonder if her mother was coming back? She had been gone for ten years. “Her business is doing well,” Ellie said.

“Her business. Margaret’s business. Travel agency. Travel. Folks ought to stay at home where they belong. She’s not much younger than your father, you know.” Now she had opened the folder up and was looking from the painting of Emily to Emily herself and back again. Ellie knew then that Gran Beau would never love Emily because Emily looked too much like Margaret Beauchere. She sat in silent fury, debating whether or not to bait her grandmother on the subject of her mother. She was relieved of her power to make the rest of her visit uncomfortable when Gran Beau sighed and said, “Oh, well,” and put the portrait down and turned to go in to her kitchen. At the door Gran Beau turned and said, “And the Beauchere’s usually live a long time too. For what that’s worth.” She and Ellie both laughed. Gran Beau didn’t mean to be herself. She just couldn’t help it.

“I’ll be in in a few minutes to help you, Gran Beau,” Ellie said, and then she rose and walked away from Gran Beau’s usual speech about not needing any help and knowing where everything belonged in her own kitchen and other people just getting in the way and just make sure the children wash their hands before they come in for supper, please. And she meant it, too. Ellie knew that Gran Beau would fly into a hand-wringing snit if she set foot in her kitchen. “OK,” Ellie mumbled, and then she muttered “OK” to herself as she put her foot on each step down from the porch. OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK.

Now the sun really was going to go down. The air was full of gold, one last show before the long shadow of night settled onto, into everything and the June bugs set up their shrill cry and the fireflies flicked their intermittent signals among the leaves of great oaks and magnolias, crepe myrtles and pines. The last of the sun caught Emily where she stood at the edge of the driveway and made her shimmer. She was bending down to a very serious conversation with the old tabby, who lay nonchalantly on his side, blinking at the sun. Emily was so serious and calm in her gestures that Ellie dared not remind her of the irritability of cats. Ellie stopped her ears against whatever incantation her daughter was whispering to the cat; it was her daughter’s incantation, not hers. She was suddenly afraid that if she listened, she would lose her daughter forever.

When Albert died, her mother had grown distant from her remaining children. At the time it had seemed to all of them that it was because she had lost her favorite son, but now that Ellie had her own children she thought that perhaps her mother simply had been unable to face the possibility of losing any of them, of having them beyond her care, her reach. Margaret and Gran Beau had more in common than either of them would admit, and it perhaps accounted for what had turned into an open antagonism between them: both of them wanted things where they belonged, believed that there were places for things where they should be. Ellie hated to reflect upon it, but she knew from gazing for hours at the faces of her own children how the world must have opened up like a dark gaping hole for her mother after Albert’s death, opened up like a sassy irreparable hole in the center of the sock to be darned, something whole in its outline but wanting in its essence.

The notion of her own children’s not-being could make Ellie stiff with terror. She thought it would be a violation worse than sex itself, worse than loneliness, worse than love and desire. It was worse to think about than her own death. And yet it was from fear of it that her mother had withdrawn from them. Ellie understood, but when she thought of the way that her mother had hardly been able to look at or touch Lucette, her last-born, after Albert’s death, she could not forgive it. It had seemed strange but not intolerable that she and the younger children had fallen more and more to the care of their older siblings and their father, so much so that Lucette could not even converse with her mother even now, but Ellie could not forgive it, and she had tried. And because of this, she could not forgive herself when she forgot her own children, as she was doing at this very moment, standing in a trance before the sight of them. She herself would never ever send her children postcards saying “Guess where I am? Guess. Go on and guess.” She knew her own mother did it because the world had unhinged for her and she had rushed to placelessness, the thing that she feared most.

In panic, she turned to look for Nathan, the old what-if-what-if-what-if of her heart sounding in her head. Nathan was sitting still as a golden stone in the muscadine arbor–balanced precariously on the vines so that his head stuck up from the top and his body hung hidden in the cool darkness below. He looked as if he’d just that moment opened the hatch of a just-surfaced submarine to look out on an ocean that no one had ever seen before. She would not have known he was there had the gold of his hair not gleamed differently in the dappled, shifting sea of gilded leaves–denser in its brightness somehow, stiller. Her urge to call out to him, to warn him about his balance, subsided when she remembered that she had sat there the same through much of her own childhood, lost in dreams that seemed irrelevant now, broken, or otherwise undone. She did not call out to him, just as she would not awaken a sleeper who might see in sleep things dearer and truer somehow than the things we know in waking life. She did not call out to him, and everything began to change.

She walked around the house toward that part of the yard that faced the field across which was Heaven-I-Guess. She talked to herself. Maybe she always had, but she’d just begun to notice it lately when the children caught her speaking, sometimes in normal conversational tones, to the sink or the typewriter or the washing machine. Now she said to herself: “What are you doing? What are they doing? What are you doing?”

Then she saw her own tree, and she knew that she was twenty-eight years old and should not be talking to herself because the mimosa tree was twenty-eight and not talking to itself. She thought for the millionth time that its bark looked like elephant skin and its flowers like barbaric headdresses in a place where people wore clothes only for ceremony. She remembered the most delicious fantasy of her childhood–that her tree yearned for, sent wind-whispers of desire across the field to Albert’s tree. What would happen if they crossed? But it was not to blend that her tree wanted, it was to transform. Sometimes she would not let herself look up from the ground as she walked toward it because she waited to see the white of its flowers turned to green, the pink to orange, waited to see smoothness like metal where the stuff of dreams had been, and leaves fanned out to solid hands that could watch the moon at night and never slept–something symmetrical and closed off like Albert’s tulip poplar instead of arms that reached out into the air at random. Ellie herself had always been too sensitive, and as a child she had blamed it on her tree. It turned itself off when night came; its leaves closed up when you touched them. And it was her tree. She had rushed out to it once at midnight to shake it–look, look, she said to it: look now, the night, the moon. But its leaves remained shut and its flowers sat on its boughs like the inscrutable eyes of a peacock’s feathers. And she had wept then because she was not the apple, the pear, or the peach, because she was not the tulip tree, the redbud, or the Japanese magnolia. Even when her father came out, his nightshirt glimmering in the moonlight, to hold her in his arms, she could not stop weeping because her tree was the mimosa and she was she.

And who was she? She thought of the boxes and crates waiting for her in Biloxi. She leaned against her tree and sent her mind ahead to the strange place that waited for her. Would she be where she belonged when she got there? Where did she belong? She sent her mind ahead to the unpacking, the scrubbing, the unknown air. And when Bob got there, where would he belong? How could they sleep in one another’s arms in a place inhabited in advance by things beyond their control? But it was not the future that she was afraid of. And it was not her life that had been postponed. Rather, she had postponed knowing that Albert would not come back. And then she had postponed losing her mother by precipitantly marrying and having children herself, as if she could undo or redo everything, as if she could have what she needed by becoming it. She had constantly to remind herself to think of her children because her thoughts were always worrying the past. She felt suddenly as if she had been untethered from the earth, floating in black space for eons, dreaming that she had a life.

Coming to herself she peered through the deep dusk across the field to where the sun had picked out Albert’s tree in one last day-moment of brilliance. And the earth itself seemed a great breathing fabric of secret living things. That was the other thing that she had forgotten or not been able to remember for the past ten years. And there was the tulip tree.

When she had seen it as a child, she had thought the noonday sun played tricks upon her eyes, but she knew that it was true, and secret in the way that true things are secret, to be known but not to be said. Wanting some reassurance that she belonged wherever she was, she whispered, “Be here; show me just this once.” And suddenly the tree was a great cone of flame, the flowers sitting on the boughs like little hidden cups of flame, bright glittering lights making the green of the leaves dark, making the rest of the world dark, something small and dear, something unexpected and lovely in the center of the darkness of the world.

Her father startled her when suddenly he was at her side. “I was just looking at Albert’s tree,” she said.

“Luriodendron tulipfera,” he said.

“The tulip tree,” she said.

“Albert’s tree,” he said.

A long silence passed between them. She was not sure what the use was of naming things if things were always slipping away and turning to something else, if one, like everybody else in the world, was always and forever Looking-For- ______-Heaven-I-Guess. “You know,” he said, “you could stay here if you wanted, long enough to see it bloom.”

“But I’ve already seen it bloom” she said, turning to him and smiling. “And you know I can’t stay.” She looked back toward the tulip tree, but all its light was gone. Then arm in arm they walked back to the house.


. . .

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