The Echo of Trees Falling Down
Melissa R. Mendelson
It was eleven a.m. on a Saturday morning. The birds were singing outside through the half open bedroom window. Tires splashed against puddles from last night’s rain. Neighborly voices whispered in the air. The house creaked, maybe from old age, and sunlight rolled over me, telling me that it was okay to sleep for a little while longer. But I was not here to sleep in or be lazy all day. I was here for him, and I wondered what he was doing. Was he sleeping in? No, he was always an early bird, and he was out and about as usual. Then, the front door opened, and I knew that he was home. And it was time to wake up.
Half an hour later, I emerged from the bathroom. I folded my clothes from yesterday and my pajamas and tucked them in the back of the suitcase. I turned toward the dresser mirror and brushed my long, brown hair. I checked my skin for a moment, looking for acne, but so far, the medication was working. Only my lips were chapped, and I knew that I had to stop gnawing on them. It was a bad habit, and I had a lot of bad habits. And one of these days, I would break them, but not now. I left the bedroom and walked toward the kitchen, and that’s where I found him.
My grandfather sat in the dark next to the black and white wallpaper. He wore a pair of jeans with a sports top and white sneakers. His thin, gray hair was brushed to the side, and his hands were folded together. His gaze settled on a pair of squirrels outside that chased each other around and up a tree. He then bit into his toast with butter and sipped his tea. He didn’t look at me, but he didn’t need to. He knew that I was there and that I would turn on the lights, which I did. I wondered, if he knew what I would do next.
“There’s hot water left in the kettle,” he said. “If you want tea.” He drank his tea, spying at me from the corner of his eye. “Bad dreams?”
“I always have bad dreams,” I replied. “You were up early.”
“I don’t really sleep,” he said. “I didn’t want to disturb you, even if you were tossing and turning. I took a walk down the road to the country store. I got the newspaper.” The newspaper was still folded and tucked against the wall. “They put the roadblock back.”
“They don’t own that road,” I snapped as I made myself some toast. “I thought they’re not supposed to come out today anyway. Don’t they burst into flames?”
“They’re not supposed to be out today,” and he finished his tea. “I don’t know about the flames,” but he smiled as he said that. “Thought I go into town today. I need a few things. Want to take a walk?”
“It’s a long walk,” I replied as I looked into the almost empty fridge. There was milk, eggs and butter. That was about it, and in the food closet, there was hot cereal and some cookies. The bread drawer was empty too except for the white bread. “Did you think about what Mom said?”
“What my daughter and I discussed is not any of your business.” He finally unfolded the newspaper and frowned at the front page.
“No. I’m not discussing it with you.”
“It’s been a few months,” I said.
“Hope, I love having you here especially afterwards, but please.”
“Okay,” and I made myself some tea, fighting the tears back. “Should I call a cab to get us into town?” I cleared my throat, a failed attempt that he saw right through. “Could I call one of your neighbors to drive us?”
“Which neighbors? The ones that ran before they won, or the ones that were bought out afterward? Never mind. I’ll drive.”
“You okay to drive?”
“I’m just asking, Grandpa.”
“As long as I can still drive, I’m going to drive.”
“Okay,” and I sat down next to him and started to eat my lunch. “I can do the dishes,” I said as he carried his plate and cup over to the sink. He didn’t answer me but kissed me on top of the head. “When do you want to leave?”
“As soon as you’re done,” and he left the kitchen.
The drive into town was quiet. I helped my grandfather move the roadblock like I did the night before with my father. We passed the lakes, and it was nice to see those that had stayed were enjoying it. They were standing in the lake and fishing. Some were in boats, and some sat on small, wooden docks. I was even surprised to see a few kids playing in the water. I thought the families with children were gone, chased away by them, but maybe they were visiting their relatives like I was. I felt sick. What gave them the right to take away our lands, our homes and act like it was theirs all along? I looked at my grandfather, noting the sadness in his eyes, and I wondered, if he was thinking the same thing. Or was he thinking about her?
As we got closer into town, the woods gave way. A few strip malls met my gaze. Then, I saw their development, houses built upon houses with all of them huddled inside. That land used to be filled with trees. That land used to have a few beautiful homes with families that were forced to move away. I remembered before their development really took off, there was one white house left with vacant windows and an empty driveway. Only its basement light remained on, defiant against them, but that light was now gone.
The shopping center was on top of a hill near a gas station and the town lakes. I used to walk around those lakes all the time. That was until there were too many of them, and they didn’t step aside for you. They pushed through you as if you were not even there, and you were not supposed to touch the men. The women reminded me of my old Barbie dolls. When I was a kid, I decided to take my father’s razor and shave their heads. Then, I was afraid that I would get into trouble, so I glued their hair back on. They were really ugly after that, but their attitude was even uglier.
The parking lot was packed. Everyone knew that they would be back tomorrow, and nobody wanted to deal with them. Nobody wanted to be cut off by their vans or their shopping carts or hit with either one. Nobody wanted to be pushed past or coughed on or looked down on as you would an ant. Saturdays were now the best days to go out into town. The rest of the days belonged to them, and again, I felt sick. And my grandfather found a parking spot.
“Just need a few things,” he said.
“Grandpa, you need a lot of things.”
“It’s not like in the old days,” he replied.
My grandfather was right. My brothers and I used to have races inside that shopping center, armed with our own wagons. We would grab whatever we wanted, and most of the time, we would get it. My brothers were all grown up now, married with kids. They rarely visited, but they called my parents almost every night. My grandfather felt like they had forgotten him even with afterwards, but I didn’t. I was going to graduate high school soon, but I would still try to visit him. Maybe, he should consider what my mother asked.
“Grandpa. About what Mom said…”
“Hope,” and he gave me that stern look of his. “You want to help me buy groceries? That’s fine, but I told you that what your mother and I discussed is between us. Okay?”
“Okay,” and I followed him inside.
“You want deli tonight?”
“Sure,” and I followed my grandfather over to the deli counter, where he approached a large, red circle and ripped off a small piece of paper. “What number are we?”
I looked over at the counter on the wall. 39. At least, the wait wasn’t too long, and then I watched those nearby. A woman had left her pocketbook in her cart while she walked over to the apples, picking through them. Two kids chased each other around another wagon. A few men stood together, whispering to one another. They were angry, and they had every right to be angry. Nothing was being done to help them. They realized that I was watching them.
“Monroe,” one man said as he approached us. “How are you?”
“John,” and my grandfather shook his hand. “Doing well. You?”
“Just getting some air before the invasion,” and he laughed bitterly. “This your granddaughter?”
“Yes,” my grandfather replied. “This is Hope.”
“Hi,” I said, feeling guilty that I was watching him and his friends.
“She looks just like her. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” my grandfather said. “She’s staying with me for the weekend.”
“Oh. You’re still at your house?”
“Yeah. They haven’t knocked on my door. Yet.”
“They knocked on mine. Yesterday,” John said.
“And,” my grandfather asked.
“And I don’t know. They offered me a good amount, and most of my neighbors are already gone. I don’t like to be surrounded.”
“So, you decided,” my grandfather said.
“I don’t like to surrender either. I didn’t fight in the war just to roll over to them. I might stay.”
“That’s me. Have a good weekend,” and he walked away from us.
“You too,” my grandfather said. “They better not knock on my door,” he muttered.
My grandfather was quiet after that. We got our deli for tonight, and then we walked up and down the aisles. I was able to talk my grandfather into getting some cold cereal, orange juice and soup. I pointed out a few other things like pretzels, but he shook his head. I was able to get him to buy a box of crackers, and then we checked out. As we walked outside, I looked once more at their development and the ugly pale wall in front of it, which was their attempt to cut us out. This was my home not theirs, but it was a losing battle. Everyone inside that shopping center had defeat in their eyes, and so did my grandfather.
“I want to go to the lake,” my grandfather said suddenly as he stopped at a red traffic light.
“Which lake,” I asked. “The town lakes?”
“Those aren’t lakes. They’re ponds. How about Around?”
“Okay,” and I suddenly wanted to cry. The memories just came rushing back. I remembered spending time at that lake with my brothers and grandfather. I was terrible at fishing. I always got myself caught on one of those small hooks. There was another time, where while my brothers and grandfather were fishing, this man was gutting his catch. I wanted to touch his knife, and I did. And when I got home, I got scolded for doing that, and then shortly afterward, we stopped fishing here. It was strange that my grandfather wanted to suddenly come here.
“It’s beautiful today,” my grandfather said as he stepped out of his car. “You can still smell the rain in the air.”
“Yeah. Grandpa?” He looked at me. “Did we stop fishing here because of me, because of what I did?”
“No. Well, a little bit. You have to be careful with strangers today. Nobody is who they say they are. Sometimes, it’s better when you know who you are dealing with.”
“Yeah. Like them, and they’re all over this lake. When they’re out, forget about it. Forget about parking here. They park any way they want to, coming an inch to your car. They don’t care, and those moments that your brothers and you and I had here... They’re gone,” and he walked back to his car.
“Grandpa.” I watched him struggle to pull himself together before turning to look at me. “Could we take a moment?”
“A moment,” he said, and his voice softly shook. “Sure.”
Around Lake had a cement dock with a roof covering and metal benches. We sat down on one of those benches and stared out at the water and the small island in the middle of it. Nobody lived out on the island, but I wondered, if there was still wildlife on that land. Someone also once wanted to buy the island, but it didn’t happen. And I was happy about that. Whoever they were, they wanted to put a helipad on the island, which was ridiculous. God forbid that helicopter got caught up in a heavy rainstorm or wicked winds and then crash into one of the nearby homes. But in the long run, it didn’t matter. There was no saving the neighborhood. It was just not done by Mother’s Nature hand.
I don’t know how long we sat there, but we sat there for quite some time. I didn’t see any fishermen. They must still be at the other lake further down the road. I guess the fish bit more over there, but I appreciated the quiet. The weather was perfect, and the wind rested against my shoulders. My grandfather sat back and drifted through his thoughts, and I knew that he was thinking about her. He was also thinking about what my mother had asked him. I hoped that he would consider it, and I wanted to talk to him about it. But he didn’t, and it killed me, thinking about him being all alone especially with them.
“It’s late,” my grandfather said. “I think I’ll take a nap before dinner.”
“Okay.” I followed him back to the car. “The Mets are playing tonight.”
“They suck,” and I laughed at that. He laughed a moment later.
Back at the house, my grandfather took his nap. I sat in the living room, flipping through the channels. When she was alive, she used to love to watch her soaps. I hated most of them except for Days of Our Lives, and if we weren’t watching the soaps, she would always find episodes of Murder She Wrote to watch. I really liked that show, and she realized that I had always figured it out before the episode ended. The few times that I was wrong, she would say something like, “I’m surprised at you. How did you miss that?” I laughed, but then I started to cry. I covered my mouth, so my grandfather would not hear me.
Six o’clock was always dinner time. My grandfather sat at the small table as I put a place mat down in front of him followed by a plate, cup and utensils. My grandfather hated paper plates and plastic utensils. He was okay with plastic cups, though, which he was running low on. I should have checked that before we went to the shopping center. Maybe tomorrow, he would go back.
Dinner was quiet. We both had turkey on a roll with mayonnaise and cole slaw. At home, my parents and brothers would think that it was strange for me to put cole slaw on the sandwich instead of in the plate, but I loved eating it this way. So did my grandfather, who was once again lost in his thoughts, and I did not want to disturb him.
“When are the Mets on,” my grandfather asked as he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin.
“Eight, I think. Maybe, seven. I can check.”
“It’s okay. We’ll find something to watch,” and he finished his orange juice.
“I’ll do the dishes,” I said, and he patted my hand in response.
“Thank you. I’ll be in the living room,” and he left the kitchen.
The Mets were losing again. Win or lose, though, she loved the Mets. She would cheer them on, even if they just hit the ball. I wanted to say that, but my grandfather looked sad. He sat on the couch while I was on the loveseat, and every now and then, he would glance at the empty seat next to him. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t find the right words. Instead, we just watched the ball game, followed by the news, which was even more depressing. Then, the night was over, and tomorrow was Sunday. Tomorrow night, I would return home.
I awoke on Sunday morning at ten a.m. The bed looked like a war zone, and a cold breeze blew through the half open bedroom window. A weight fell upon me, and the sun refused to shine. They were out now, outside, lurking. I could feel them, and I hated that weight. But the weight of her loss was even heavier, almost crushing him, but luckily, he did not follow. I hoped he thought over what my mother had asked him.
“Morning.” I found him standing by the front door. The door was open, but the screen door was closed. “Are they out there?”
“They’re always out there,” my grandfather replied. “They’re either walking by the house or standing right at the edge of the lawn.” He shook his head. “You want breakfast here or the diner?”
“Let’s go,” and we walked outside.
Today was a lot cooler than yesterday, and the sun was hidden behind a large, dark cloud. It smelled like rain, even though the weatherman last night spoke of clear skies. They were always wrong. Maybe, I would become a weatherman, and as the car pulled out of the driveway, one of them stepped into view, casting an ugly shadow over the car. I didn’t think he was going to move, but he finally did. And we were free to go.
The diner was located near the shopping center and town lakes. The parking lot was small but not too crowded. We were seated quickly inside too, in a small booth. My grandfather ordered scrambled eggs with white toast and tea. I didn’t feel like eggs. I got a grilled cheese sandwich instead with a large orange juice. I was tempted to also order fries, but maybe, it was too early for fries.
As we waited for our order, I looked out the window. Cars drove by, and people walked along the sidewalk. You would almost think that it was an ordinary town until I saw them, and they walked in a large group. It was like they had stepped through an alternate reality, or maybe we were the aliens here. But we were here first, and then I heard a crash. One of their vans had ignored the traffic light and plowed into the car that was making a left turn, and it was right near the diner. This diner had seen a lot of accidents especially once that development opened, and my grandfather muttered under his breath.
After breakfast, we stepped outside. The accident was still being handled. The driver making the left turn was taken away in an ambulance. The other driver just stood there, pretending to not understand the police officer. It was a scene that we were used to, and nothing would come of it. Or maybe the other driver would be blamed, even if they had the right of way, and my grandfather shook his hand and walked toward his car.
My grandfather drove home slowly. He checked his mirrors and stepped on his brakes even before stopping at the traffic lights or STOP signs. Sometimes, they would just appear out of nowhere and step in front of your car. Then, they would blame you like it was your fault, and so far, my grandfather had been lucky. But now, there were a lot of them, and they were still outside his house, almost blocking the driveway again. It wasn’t right. It just wasn’t right.
We walked inside the house, and the phone was ringing. It didn’t ring yesterday except for maybe an occasional bill collector or charity. Today, the phone would be ringing. It was one of their maneuvers, and if you answered the phone, sometimes they wouldn’t even say anything. Other times, they would speak in their own tongues and not yours, and they would speak loudly, harshly. My grandfather answered the phone and then hung up. He left the phone off the hook. We knew my parents were not calling until five o’clock, so the phone would stay like that until then.
“You still getting their letters,” I asked.
“Yeah. The post office does nothing about it,” my grandfather said. “At least, I get my mail. Want to watch tv?”
“Sure,” and I followed him into the living room. “If you move into our house, you wouldn’t have to deal with them.”
“If they’re not there already, they will be. Give them time,” and he turned on the television set.
“It’s not right.”
“No, it’s not, but nobody can stop them.” My grandfather sat on the couch, and he looked tired, defeated just like those in the diner did. Why was it such a losing war? “There’s a baseball game,” my grandfather said. “Yankees.” He frowned, and I laughed.
“Sure. Why not,” and I sat on the loveseat. “Grandpa, was it always like this? With them?”
“No, but in the end, we knew that they would win, which is why a lot of people left. It’s not right, but what can you do about it?”
“Somebody should do something.”
“People tried. They tried, and it still didn’t work. They knew how to play the game and which cards to use.” My grandfather didn’t speak after that. He just watched the game, and I watched with him.
Five o’clock. The phone returned to its cradle, and it started to ring. The first few calls were them. The last one was my parents. They were coming at seven not eight, so I got my stuff ready. My grandfather was taking another nap, and I didn’t want to disturb him. Instead, I looked outside and stared at them. They stared back, and there was no compassion or forgiveness in their eyes. They were just hollow, knowing what we all knew. They had won, and one day, this house would belong to them.
Six o’clock. My grandfather had his turkey on a roll with mayonnaise and cole slaw. I had a ham sandwich instead with ketchup not mustard. I found packs of ketchup in the food closet, and I had the cole slaw after the sandwich. I chased it all with a glass of water, and my grandfather did the same. As we ate in silence, I wondered, if he would talk to my mother. What would his answer be? He didn’t need this. He didn’t need them terrorizing him. He just needed the quiet. That’s all I wanted for him, and then we heard a knock at the door. Was it my parents, or was it them?
My grandfather opened the front door and then the screen door. My parents waited on the other side. My mother hugged and kissed my grandfather. My dad shook his hand, and they walked inside. As they did, I saw them still standing out there. They won. Can’t they just go home now, but it wasn’t enough. It was never enough for them, and the front door slammed shut.
“Ready,” my father asked me.
“Yeah. Let me grab my stuff. Oh, and I have to clear the table.”
“I’ll do that,” and my mother walked my grandfather into the kitchen, where they could talk.
“He say anything,” my father asked me.
“No,” I said.
“You think he’ll do it?”
“I don’t know. I think he should, but we’re asking him to leave his home.”
“If we’re not asking, then they are.” My father glanced out the window nearby.
“They’re ridiculous,” and I went to get my stuff.
Ten minutes later, my grandfather was waving to us by the front door. I was sitting in the backseat next to my suitcase. I stared at my feet. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t hate them. I hated what they were doing, and this was my grandfather’s home. Nobody had the right to ask him to leave. This was where he lived with her. This was where we had spent so many wonderful holidays and memories together. I grew up here, but I still didn’t want him to be alone.
“What did he say?”
“Hope, it’s between your grandfather and I.”
“He doesn’t want to leave.”
“Can you blame him?”
“It’s not good for him to be alone,” my mother replied. “Not with them standing outside or calling him every day. Maybe, if they left him alone, it would be different, but they don’t leave anyone alone. They just keep on coming,” and I could feel the bitterness in her voice.
“I know.” I wanted to do something, anything, but I was one person. What could I do? “Do you mind if I come back next weekend?”
“Only if your grades stay up. You’re going to college soon,” my father said as he drove the car.
“I know. They’ll stay up,” but I started to worry. When I go to college, who would take care of my grandfather? Who would be there for him, if my mother wasn’t? Maybe at that point, he would move into our house. Maybe at that point, they would finally leave, satisfied with what they had taken away, but I doubted it. They would never go away, and one day, they would be knocking on my door.