The bald-headed man passed underneath the same oak tree at precisely the same time every morning; leather bag in one hand, breakfast bar in the other. The plump squirrels that lived hidden in the tree waited for him to deliver their morning meal, and followed him, furry Hansels and Gretels, stuffing his trail of crumbs into their fat cheeks. But this morning the squirrels would not get their breakfast. This morning Professor Winston Hardy walked under the tree and stepped on a branch, cracking it into several pieces under his scuffed leather shoes. Winston stopped, stuffed the half-eaten breakfast bar into the pocket of his khaki pants, and peered at each broken piece from underneath his thick glasses. He chose the small, thin end of the branch, shorter than his forearm, less than the width of his finger. It branched out at one end, a wishbone of wood. He put it in his long tweed coat pocket, where it bumped up against a pocket knife and bits of lint.
Short and unassuming, Winston was not the sort of person people noticed. His hair, a mousy gray, blended with his pale, ashen complexion. He taught Composition at a small community college in the Midwest where not much was expected of anyone, where he could slide by his life without anyone looking. Even his own students barely saw him, handing him the required papers, taking notes when they thought about it. Soon their memories of him were reduced to hazy mixtures of musty-smelling tweed jackets and red marks scrawled on the papers they had long since thrown away. The department gave him the office next to the utility closet, safe from everyone except hopelessly lost students asking for directions.
Winston kept the door to his windowless office closed, and any student daring enough to enter would have felt weight of the oppressive musty air lean on him heavily. The fluorescent lights flickered at random intervals, highlighting the small wooden carvings that crowded his shelves. Winston collected interesting bits of branches, hunted the lakeshores and riverbeds for driftwood. Sometimes he would see pictures in them, faces or hands or bodies, and would carve them out, following the patterns of the wood with his sharp knife, accentuating and revealing his discoveries. To other people, they were just misshapen twigs. Not to him. After each class, he recovered from the ordeal of interacting with other humans by retreating into his office, opening his drawer to find just the right piece of wood, balancing it on his pudgy belly as he whittled, flakes of wood chips and dust falling in clouds around him. Sometimes he would cock his head to one side, thinking, listening.
A knock on the door. The knife slipped. A red dot of blood blossomed on his finger. "Darn it," he gasped. He gently placed the half-finished carving onto the desk, fumbled for a tissue to clean his hands, and asked the intruder to enter. It was a younger boy, freshman age, he supposed. He could swear they were getting younger. Might be one of his students. They started to blur after a while.
"Dr. Hardy?" asked the boy. "I need to speak with you a minute."
Winston adjusted his glasses, peered at the student. Skinny, tousled brown hair, wearing those baggy jeans with his boxer shorts showing. Yes, the three o'clock class last semester. That was it. Total failure, from what he remembered. The natives couldn't even speak their own language anymore, let alone write in it.
The student fished in his backpack and pulled out a stack of papers. "You gave me a D. I deserve at least a C."
Winston focused on the boy's left ear, unable to look in his eyes. He was tired of students who always thought professors gave out grades like little blue ribbons or party favors, never thinking that a grade was something earned. Winston held out his hand to look at his essays, glanced at the name. The papers, dirty, worn at the edges and covered with red marks, had grades circled at the top: 74, 72, 75.
He hated these moments. He flipped through his gradebook, found the name that matched the one on the paper. "You missed fifteen classes," he droned. "And didn't hand in two response papers." He stared at the piece of wood on his desk, a half-formed lizard peeking out, the lower half still stuck, waiting for Winston to carve him out.
"I had emergencies," insisted the student.
Winston sighed, gazing wistfully at the lizard. "Do you have proof?"
"No." The boy stared at him. "What, you think I'm lying?"
Winston willed the spot in front of his desk to be empty, recited the class policy in his trademark monotone, then handed the student a copy of his syllabus. "You earned a 50/100 on attendance. That averages out to a D. There's nothing I can do for you." He closed his eyes, feeling the weight of the student's stare, and when he opened them, the boy was gone.
So was the piece of wood he had been carving.
He thought about going after the boy. But he didn't. Too difficult. Too much confrontation. He looked at the clock. It was already after one o'clock, which meant he should probably eat something. His stomach never bothered to notify him of hunger, and it was only strict attention to the time that put food in his stomach at all. He took a brown paper bag, folded neatly at the top, out of his briefcase. Inside was a clear Tupperware with neat compartments dividing his food. Ham sandwich with mayonnaise with the crusts cut off, Fritos (just a serving, he had to watch his cholesterol), and three Fig Newtons stuck together. He ate mechanically while he read his precious copy of the monthly magazine "Whittler's World," spilling crumbs and wiping them off only when they obscured what he was reading. He reached for another Frito, and was, as always, surprised to find there was nothing left.
There were three more classes that day. He kept his eyes on the board, away from the students, who slept or doodled in their college-ruled notebooks. Some typed on their laptops, and although he'd heard they could play video games on the new-fangled things, he was too afraid to check. His haven lay in the grayish-black expanse of the chalkboard. Back turned to the students, he scribbled the lesson with the tiny piece of chalk, white dust spilling on his yellowing white shirt as he wrote. That was a good world, with just what he knew and understood in front of him. No arguments, no questions, no demands for better grades.
He took the bus home, dozing off a bit or staring out the window. Reading in a moving vehicle always made him nauseated. Having a car would help him stay away from people, but the threat of unpredictable motorists was too disconcerting for him. He got out at the back so he wouldn't have to thank the driver who he wouldn't recognize anyway, and walked the six blocks to his house, his teacher's bag bumping along the cracked sidewalk as he rolled it behind him. He sniffed the smoky air, and rounded the corner of his block to see a bright red fire truck in front of the charred remains of his house.
The firemen were already inside the skeletal black structure, poking rods at the cinders to see that the embers were out. Winston stood across the street from his own house, watching the thin wisps of smoke emanating from what used to be his living room, imagining the flames surrounding his figurines, licking them into black charcoal nubs. His neighbors stood by, shaking their heads, staring at the man who never spoke to anyone. He felt his next-door neighbor beside him, his mouth opening and closing. No sound came out. He strained his ears, focused on the mouth, finally heard what the man was saying.
"The tree caught on fire first, fell right on the roof, set the whole house on fire within a coupla minutes. Good thing the wind was blowin' in your direction, or we'd be in the same boat as you."
Winston nodded, turned away. He'd always liked that tree. Some of his best pieces of wood had come from that tree.
He jammed his hands violently into his coat pocket, swore at the unexpected pain, and drew his left hand out to examine the thin line of skin that had been scraped off his palm. He had forgotten about the stick, and carefully slid his hand back in his pocket to catch the culprit. That little stick was the last thing the tree had given him, all he had left.
A fireman, face dirty from the ash of Winston's cremated carvings, ambled in his direction. Winston clutched his stick and fled. He found himself waiting for the bus that trundled by every half hour, took it to campus and locked himself in his office. He sat down, leaning against the heater as it blew stale air into the room, and took out the stick, thinking of nothing, head back, eyes closed. He folded both hands around it tightly, stroking it a little. It would be all right.
He stopped by the Walgreen's near the campus and stocked up on the necessaries: toiletries, Fritos, a loaf of bread and sandwich meat. He had always passed by the neighboring liquor store, but this time he walked in, wandering around aimlessly until his eyes settled on a poster of a pretty girl in a low-cut black dress gazing at him as she sipped a vodka tonic.
Back in his office, he unscrewed the plastic two-liter bottle of Smirnoff and poured it into a white mug with dried black rings lining the inside, filling it. Didn't matter. The vodka would burn off the germs anyway. He drank it in one gulp so he wouldn't have to think about the little black flecks that had begun floating on the clear surface, and choked from the burn in his throat. He had forgotten about that. He shook his head, clearing his throat. Instinctively he checked to make sure he had the stick, and pulled it out again, absently stroking it between the fingers of one hand as he walked around his room, touching each little carving on his shelves, just to make sure they were there. He laughed a little. His favorites were here, still with him. He took another swig, and remembered the carving the student had stolen, naked and raw to the world, unfinished. Tears came to his eyes. He told himself it was from the sting of the vodka. Where could he go, he wondered, where there were no students or burnt houses, where there were no people to bother him at all? He lay down on the floor, using his carefully folded-up tweed jacket as a pillow, and stared at the ceiling, amazed by all the patterns he had never noticed before, little faces looking down at him.
In the early morning a sharp pain in his back awakened him. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark room. He was still holding onto the stick. The small amount of blood from the scratch had dried. He grabbed onto a low bookshelf with one hand, stick in the other, and pulled himself, groaning, to a sitting position. After a series of impromptu stretches and loud grunting noises, he managed to stand and headed out to the faculty restroom. No one was there yet; they wouldn't notice the pudgy little professor washing his pits in the sink.
It was a Saturday morning, and the pedestrian walkway was scattered with gaggles of joggers in their college sweats, running past him as they bounced to the music on their ipods, never even looking in his direction, just making a little detour around him, as if he were a tree or a bush. A few of the slower walkers, still in last night's wrinkled black skirts, shuffled by, wincing at the sunlight and trying unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous. Two students sat in the corner booth of the all-night Waffle House, holding hands while he ordered an egg sandwich to go. He stuffed it in his mouth as he walked, catching bits of waxy paper that tore off and melted in his mouth, mixing with egg and cheese and ham and English muffin.
He holed himself up in his office. A morning class came and went from the seminar room, the students' voices starting off slow and throaty, tired from staying up too late, until the coffee kicked in and they remembered they had opinions. Someone knocked on his door, but he sat still until they went away, not daring to move lest he reveal himself with a noise. The stick balanced itself on his thigh, positioned in a fold of his khaki pants that kept it from falling. When he felt safe enough, he made himself a sandwich of two American cheese slices and baloney, downing it with vodka.
He stayed in his office again that night after going out to a little Chinese place nearby. For the first time in years, he craved vegetables, and it was a step up from the Waffle House. He drank some more of the vodka, this time washing out his cup beforehand, and set about polishing the little piece of wood, sanding down the sharp piece that had scratched him. The air reeked of lacquer. The wood had turned dark and smooth from his ministrations.
Winston woke up on the floor, holding the stick in both hands over his chest. The empty bottle of vodka lay under the desk amid the dust of wood shavings on the carpet. He needed some air. He walked down the hallway in his stocking feet, wrinkled shirt untucked, hair in all directions around his splotchy red face, clutching the two-pronged stick. On a Sunday, he wouldn't be bothered by anyone, not this far away from the dorms. He sat outside the building on a bench, pulled off his socks, kicked the cigarette butts surrounding the bench away with his toes and breathed in the cold air. It was warmer than yesterday.
He felt his blood rise at the scent of spring, saw the buds on the tree that had bloomed too early and would have to wait a little longer. He thought of the tree the stick had come from, wondered how the stick felt to be broken off from the rest of his body, like a finger severed from a hand. He lay the stick on his chest, put his hand over it, keeping it safe.
Maybe it was good that he didn't have a house. It was so dark and dusty. Back in the restroom, he stared at his bloodshot eyes in the mirror, trying to comb his hair down to stay in place. He really looked awful. He wondered how his face got so many wrinkles. He could not remember the last time he had actually looked in a mirror or had cared how other people thought he looked. He saw that he was holding a stick. How odd, he thought, and stuck it in his shirt pocket next to his Bic pens.
He went for a walk, not caring where. A shopping plaza advertised ten dollar haircuts for men, and he walked in. The little bells hanging on the door tinkled as he opened the door. He forgot that he was supposed to be afraid of people, and didn't mind how much the woman talked as she soaped his hair. Following her recommendation as to where he could find some decent clothes on a Sunday, he walked down the thin sidewalk next to the highway to the Sears.
That night he cleaned his office, pulling a vacuum cleaner from the supply closet so that he could sleep on the floor without leaving an outline of his body in the dust. He considered getting a fan. A new potted leafy green plant sat on his desk, enjoying the fluorescent light and fresh air from the propped open door. He slept in his office in his new blue and gray plaid flannel pajamas, curled up inside a green sleeping bag, hugging his new travel pillow. He had thrown away his dirty old shirt and pants. He hadn't bought new clothes in years. It felt nice.
On Monday morning he went to class. He passed by the secretary and said hello to her for the second time in twenty years since getting tenure. Her eyes practically popped out of their sockets.
"Hello, Dr. Hardy," she gasped, recovering. "How are you?" The other staff had turned to stare. He might as well have pulled down his pants in front of them.
"My house burned down this weekend," he said. He didn't know why he said it, he hadn't planned on mentioning it at all. He just couldn't think of anything to say.
"I'm so sorry," said the secretary. Winston accidentally looked in her eyes, and was surprised to see that she looked genuinely concerned. He felt guilty that he had never bothered to find out her name.
When he returned to the department after class, the secretary asked him if he could wait there a moment. The department chair wanted to speak with him.
The chair was a skinny, nervous woman with white hair so frizzy it seemed to have been shaped from her temperament. He sat down in front of her, wondering if he had done something wrong. Pictures of happy grandchildren stared at him from their frames.
"Miss Finklestein informed me of your misfortune," she said stiffly, looking at him over her glasses. "Have you been sleeping in your office?"
Winston nodded, squirming a little. He stuffed his left hand in his pocket to feel the stick.
"We at the college do not wish our faculty to suffer through hard times without our help. We are here, as you know, to help you. We don't want people to think we make a teacher live in his own office. That would be horrible publicity for the department."
Winston hadn't remembered her ever offering to help him before.
"We thought you might like to take some time off," she said. "Just a week or so, to find a new apartment, maybe some new clothes. You've hardly used your sick days. We thought it was the least you deserved."
He hadn't yet thought about apartments.
"Your time off would be paid, of course. My sister is a real estate agent," continued the chair. "Here's her card. Let me know when you get settled. We'll take care of your classes for you."
He took the stick out to look for apartments with him. It was still cold enough that he could hide the stick in his jacket pocket so that he could touch it without being noticed. He thought a nice, sunny place with lots of fresh air would be good for the stick, and the real estate agent, an overly made-up blonde dressed in a coordinated red pant suit with matching high heels, showed him some of her favorites. His insurance policy completely covered unforeseen destruction of property, and as soon as his claim went through, he would have more than enough to cover rent for quite a while.
The last stop was the top floor of an old brick warehouse that had been converted to large studio apartments, mostly for artists who needed lots of light to paint.
"The best part of this unique fixer-upper," trilled the enthusiastic agent, "is the skylights." The top floor had not been converted yet, and the floors were bare concrete. The ceiling was dotted with regularly spaced rectangles of opaque light. The windows ran from floor to ceiling on the east and west sides. He could wake up in the morning to the sunrise and have dinner with the sunset.
Winston dug his hand into his left pocket as he examined the windows. "I'll take it," he said, running his fingers along the knobby surface of the stick.
The agent whirled around, eyes wide, then controlled herself. "But you haven't asked how much it is," she stammered.
Winston asked, she answered, and they shook hands. That night she gave him the key, and he moved his now meager belongings inside. His whittled figurines stayed in his office. His three new checkered shirts and two pairs of pants went in the corner, hanging from a lone nail he had found on the wall. He went to the corner store, purchased some good sharp cheese, a bottle of moderately priced red wine, and some crackers. He used his pocket knife as a cheese slicer, ate his dinner on the cardboard box that served as a table, the stick in his front pocket, close to him, where he could touch it.
He took the bus to Home Depot. The delivery truck arrived at his house a few hours later, and men in orange aprons and khaki pants began measuring his house while others, grunting heavily, carried in large potted plants and small potted trees. He hadn't intended to buy more than a few houseplants, but the stick poked him as he walked by the garden department, and he realized that the poor things were constrained in such small pots, deprived of fresh air, badly fed. Many of them needed a good watering. These plants had to be saved.
Winston saw brown eyes watching him through the jungle of potted plants waiting to be taken upstairs. A short woman in faded blue overalls and long, straight gray hair that fell over her glasses peered up at him, moving aside to let the men take the potted plants upstairs.
"Hey man, you moving up there?"
Winston nodded, then called out, "Just last night."
"Groovy," she nodded. "Can I come see? She started up the steps before Winston could answer.
"Name's Barbara," she said. "But you can call me Barb. Howdy, neighbor." She held her hand out and Winston shook it. "Winston," he said. He put his hand back in his pocket to touch the stick.
Barbara was older than he'd thought at first, maybe a decade younger than he was. Her wrinkles were mostly laugh lines that crinkled around her eyes when she smiled, which was frequently. She was a multicolored rainbow of a creature, with paint flecks spattered all over, mixed with ink doodles of birds, stars, names. She gasped when she saw all the plants. "What are you, a gardener or something?" she asked.
"No, I just like plants," Winston answered, wondering why he had never appreciated them until now.
"Me, too!" she nodded. "My friends and I used to protest whenever those bastard government fascists would try to tear down another forest so they could build a damned shopping mall. We'd sit in those trees, camp out in them until those S.O.B.s went away. Trees are important," she added dreamily, nodding to him.
He went down to her apartment for lunch when she invited him, as he "obviously had to live off take-out for a while," she said. Her apartment was much smaller than his, half-finished canvases leaning against the walls and furniture. Most of them were wild abstracts that looked like a child on a sugar high had been let loose among the paint pots, but every once in a while there was a thoughtful face, painted green or yellow. She made him a salad with organic lettuce, tomatoes, and sprouts. "They're from the commune," she said. "None of that fascist government subsidized genetically mutated crap here. All fresh."
He had been planning to oversee the carpenters who came to lay the floor down the next day. His layout was not the average one, and he wanted to make sure they got it right. But when Barbara invited him back for lunch, he brought down a geranium and a begonia and went out for a walk with her along the river to get away from all the sawing and dust.
He added a big kitchen to his apartment, as well as marble tile. The best part was the trees, now planted in large terraced rows with lots of rocks at the base for the roots to grow around and so the water could flow.
He felt he needed the stick closer to him, and drilled a small hole in the top and threaded in a leather string Barbara had given him. Luckily the stick was thin and its branches did not stick out at angles. It could lie flat against his breastbone, barely visible under a baggy checkered shirt.
Barbara saw it when he was over at her house for dinner. She had the incense burning full tilt, the whole room smelling of burnt sage and lavender. After he mentioned that he disliked fire, she kept the candles out.
"What's that you're wearing?" she asked, pointing to the leather string around his neck.
"Oh, this, it's nothing, just sort of a lucky charm. A stick I found."
"Like a talisman? Oooh, I love that stuff, man. Lemme see." Without asking, she drew closer to him and unbuttoned his shirt, putting her hand on the stick, on his chest.
"This is some mojo stick, man," she said. "This has got voodoo juice in it. Lots of energy. Where'd you get it?"
"I found it the day my house burned down," said Winston.
Her eyes widened. "And you kept it? I'd'a thrown that thing away from me right then and there. Bad luck."
"It feels good to me," he said, a trifle defensively, drawing up his hand to absent-mindedly stroke it.
Barb returned her attention to the stick, holding her hand over his, letting his guide hers over the stick, over his chest. He felt his blood rise like green sap in the springtime, felt an urge that he had almost forgotten existed.
They forgot about her sprout and avocado salad.
Winston woke up next to her, feeling the warm weight of her slight body curled around his under her frayed organic cotton sheets. His head itched, and as he scratched it he thought it felt different. He had been going outside without a hat on lately, which was unlike him, as he usually worried about getting skin cancer at the first touch of the sun on his bald pate. He disentangled himself from Barb, slowly so as not to wake her, and looked at his reflection in her bright red papier-mache framed mirror on her bedroom wall. All over the formerly bare expanse of his head were fine shoots of mouse-brown hair.
The stick felt warm against his chest. Most likely, Winston reasoned, it had absorbed his body heat. Barb had called it a talisman. Maybe this was more than a good luck charm.
He left her in bed, feeling the need to go for a walk. It was one of those days that gave people a false hope that spring was here. Winston saw that the trees were already forming little buds, and he felt sorry for them, knowing they would soon freeze when the inevitable spring frost blew in. It didn't seem so strange to him that the stick possessed some kind of power; after all, he had spent the last twenty years collecting little bits of wood. All that searching for just the right one, picking up bits of wood that looked nice or felt right, and this stick had found him, saving him just in time.
They went hiking that day, in the park. The dead leaves crunched under their feet. Everywhere around him he felt the world was waking, not enough to stir, but remembering its own awareness. He felt embarrassed because he had to stop every five minutes or so to catch his breath, feeling the heaviness of his chest so unused to working. It gave him an excuse to check that the stick was still there, safely against him. Barb was giddy with excitement, alternately catching hold of his hand or performing spins in front of him. She made him try it, laughing, and he reluctantly lumbered around in a circle, holding out his arms.
"Close your eyes," she shouted, laughing.
He closed them, let his feet move so that he spun around faster, let the world move around him. He felt alive, and something else happened that he had forgotten: he began to laugh. He fell on the ground, dizzy, opened his eyes and the trees and Barb swirled around him like a carousel, the ground even rocking beneath him. His laughter opened up a well of untapped emotions, and tears streamed down his cheeks from the shock of such dramatic release.
Barb sat down beside him. "What's the joke?" she smiled at him, laughing with him and at him and grabbed his hand again, pulling him close.
"I feel," he said, knowing that that was the real answer, that was the whole reason he was laughing. He had been wooden, a dry, dead stick, and now he was sprouting, growing, feeling and remembering the whole world around him. He laughed because he had finally remembered how. "I feel wonderful," he said, looking into her big brown eyes, and he kissed her.
It was summer when they got married, under the trees of the farm they had bought together. She had more experience with marriages, having practiced four times already, and seemed to think another one was worth a shot. Winston, having no experience at all in such matters, readily agreed. They wanted to escape from the world and still be close to it, and although it now took him an hour to drive to campus, he thought it was worth it. His new car ran on ethanol, and he found he didn't mind driving on the freeway anymore. Sometimes at night when he came home he found himself speeding, delighting in the feeling of power and motion. He had taken up hiking, and he went on long walks by the river every morning. His belly had almost disappeared, along with the rest of his fat, and he was skinny now. They uprooted all the plants in his apartment and put them in their new home, or planted them outside where they could stretch their roots and feel the morning dew on their leaves.
In the morning he got out of bed. His wife opened her eyes sleepily and tousled his now full head of hair, smiling at him. He kissed her on the cheek, and she closed her eyes, still smiling. Outside there were still a few stars as the morning mixed with the night. He picked up the shovel by the shed door, then, with a little rummaging, found the box where he had put all his old carvings from his office, no longer needing them for comfort and security. He carried both of them to a small clearing by the river, quiet and protected from winds. In the center of the clearing he dug a hole. He dumped the contents of the box into the hole, all the little pieces of wood so lovingly carved and no longer needed, going back to the earth where they belonged. The earth piled back on top easily enough, forming a little mound. He broke the thin leather of his necklace and cradled the stick in his hands.
"Thank you," he whispered to the spirit sleeping inside the stick. He traced its contour with his fingernails that now grew so much that he had to cut them every morning, along with his hair, and patted it reverently. He could see the blue sky above him, dotted at the horizon with a few pink clouds, and breathed the air from the trees that breathed out to him.
And as his fingernails touched the stick, it formed little buds at the top, roots growing with little snaps and cracks from the bottom. He held it above the earth, letting it touch the mound, and its roots reached out, dug themselves in deep, and began to search for the water it could feel all around. He sat with it as the day formed, making sure it was safe, until he heard Barb calling for him to come for breakfast. He got up, touched a branch that was already showing shoots of green, and walked back to his life, a life now full of warmth and love.
In a little clearing by the woods, inside a stick that had just become a tree, a little pudgy man named Winston Hardy slept a long, comfortable sleep in the space he had whittled out for himself to hide. A squirrel began to dig in the fresh earth around Winston's trunk, chittered angrily when a branch fell on his nose, and scampered away.