LEAF by Matt McGee
The mulberry planted in the 1960’s has shaded my add-on apartment from the sun all summer long. When my daily alarm goes off and the agenda only says all clear, go surfing! the tree’s leaves report how much shoreline breeze I can expect and from which direction.
While off at work, the mulberry has provided a shady summer haven for the dog. Then, in the middle of last week, the air around the city began to cool. Its foliage began to yellow and tear with the breezes that lead into autumn. Soon the lawn will be a carpet of yellow and every leaf will fall.
Last month, my seven year friendship with Megan suddenly showed the kind of once-in-a-lifetime relationship potential that can sometimes blossom. Megan called during a recent road trip and described her intent to settle in and raise a family. Is this a woman I could trust to be a mother to my child? The loud, sad answer came in a highlight reel of collected memories, little selfish acts, calls unreturned, interest often left one-sided. until, I suspect, the biological clock became too loud to ignore. I listened as road noise rushed in the background. A breeze rustled loose another mulberry leaf, pushing it skyward. Having nothing else to do, the dog gave chase across the yard.
I told Megan I had to get going. The dog came back with the leaf and dropped it beside my foot. I tried to fling it like a game of fetch but it didn’t go too far. Encouraged though, she trotted away and returned with a weathered tennis ball, which we heaved and bounced off the far fence for almost an hour.
She’d just returned it, the breeze had just picked up, when a text chimed in my phone. There are some messages no one wants; I read it, didn’t answer and just sat still, processing. I would spend the day’s final hour staring into the tree, the dog nearby, the sky beginning its end-of-the-day cooling into evening.
Tyler had been a friendly face at a local print center where I spent two years bringing creative visions to fruition. His usual cheer had slid away the previous week and never recovered; depression over a lost love led him to the suicide solution. When I arrived at the copy store, I was told that he’d wrapped an orange cord around his neck, hanging where he could be easily found, when he knew friends would come looking.
Days after his burial, a member of management appeared at my side where only friends had reigned. “I can’t have you back here working on your personal things like you’re used to,” his tired face said. I told him I got his point, gathered my bag and damp fountain drink and said goodbye for now to those who’d helped me in recent years.
At the curb, I slid the key into the car door. The Chinese elm beside the boulevard, the one that had shaded our — Tyler’s and mine — smoke breaks and long talks about cars and girls had covered my hood with its little leaves. I’d had an aunt who had sewn ‘sympathy blankets’ for someone who’d just lost a loved one; I looked up at the Chinese elm and thanked it for keeping that tradition alive, watching each thread flutter away as the car gained speed down the boulevard.
It had been a wonderful summer for surfing. The sun had been mildly strong, manageable with good lotion, enough to tan just right. The girls lay out in bikinis and I’d met the neighbors, one of them famous. I had returned to this favorite spot of three decades for one reason: the shape and proximity of surf. Broad Beach’s sandy floor reaches forty feet from the shore, allowing one to approach the waves and literally leap onto good rides all day long.
Most summer days had started the same way. The mulberry would shade the house until the sun heated the room, and when that oven cooked, the surf called. The dog was happy to be sprung into the yard. With nothing on the agenda, I’d weave through the canyon to the beach for another day in the water. Then, Friday happened.
With two other surfers nearby, a riptide gripped and pulled us all from shore. All six feet and 196 pounds of me struggled as did the others. Someone shouted to swim sideways. We did and were spared, but the incident broke the summer’s carefree hymen; I forced myself back onto the board twice, and perhaps the girls on the beach didn’t notice, but I drifted closer to shore each day. I would duck the stronger surf, paying more attention to the pull of the current than my alignment.
The sun began to weaken earlier, the calendar flipped toward autumn, until this past Monday I brought the board home onto the back porch. As if to welcome in the season, or give its approval, the mulberry dropped a yellow leaf beside the board’s leash.
The next day was hot enough so I gave it one more try. I waded into the current but couldn’t shake the fear of drowning alone. I came back to town, to a movie Megan had recommended; $12 spent seeing pretty mostly-naked people walk through an incoherent plot. I drove past the copy shop; inside the glass frontage stood Abel, a former Air Force sergeant. His erect posture kept a sentry’s watch over a clattering copy machine and the room as a whole. I kept floating down the street.
I hadn’t noticed, but the amber light on my cell was blinking. My voice mail played a message from Irene, friend to Mary, a recent girlfriend. Mary had been sick lately.
“She’s back in the hospital,” Irene reported into the voicemail. “We don’t expect her to come out this time.”
I turned toward home. I set the board on the porch, this time for the season. After greeting the dog, I piled up dirty laundry and stepped toward the garage. The dog followed, hoping to catch me in a generous mood, maybe willing to scoop up an extra bowl of kibble. I saw her watching me, her eyes shifting from me to the Iams bag.
We’ve all got to put on our winter weight.
I’m soon fluffing and folding, hearing jaws crunching happily on the porch, when something moves in the corner of my eye. Lying at the base of the doorway, dropped from a branch above is a perfect yellow mulberry leaf. I lean down, twirl it in my fingers, then set it atop the freshly laundered shirts. I put the laundry on the bed and the leaf on my desk.
I sign on to check email. Maybe Megan has something more to report from the road. There’s a new message from Irene. Its subject line: ‘Mary: Remembrance Ceremony.’
A breeze blows at the open door. The dog trots in, her belly freshly filled. She plops down into her favorite corner. I slide the door closed, sealing out the cooling wind. The surfboard leans against the far wall; I flip off the porch light, casting it and the mulberry into darkness. Back at the desk, I’ll reach over and click on a small space heater. There will be another season, more waves, new friends to be made. But first, as is usually the case, a few things I’ve loved for years will have to fall away.
MATT McGEE writes in the Los Angeles area. In 2023 his work has appeared in Spectrum, Gnashing Teeth and The NonBinary Review. When not typing he drives around in rented cars and plays goalie in local hockey leagues.
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