Joyce and the Tree

by Sommer Schafer Issue: Spring/Summer 2019

The tea tree, arced from the weight of thousands of tiny pink flowers, directly across from their 3-bedroom townhome and growing against the fence of #60’s patio, technically wasn’t hers or Donald’s; it belonged to the HOA. And on top of that they weren’t even owners. Donald rented the place soon after their divorce twenty-three years ago, and she came and went every couple weeks, dividing her time between Frank in Sacramento (whom she’d met at an Oldies-Goldies dance at the community center) and Donald whom she still considered a friend.

“You know, we still like each other,” she told anyone who’d listen. “I mean, I sleep on the couch in the living room and he’s got his ‘man cave’ upstairs, you know how men are,” and she’d release one of her burbling, high-pitched laughs, which she also used, a pitch or two lower, when she was absolutely irate. There was that time, for instance, when that jackass on the freeway hadn’t anticipated her lane change. He partially rear ended the Buick Estate wagon Frank had given her when he stopped driving several years before, now she had to do with a 1970s Mercedes gas-guzzler a connection of Frank’s had sold her for $300, which she thought was way more than it was worth.

Frank was in his early 90s and needed to be reminded to take his meds and eat enough fiber and to be driven to his doctors’ appointments, and Donald, well, Donald was 78 like she, but way too docile and lazy. So, she took care of them both, though Donald was like a stupid broken record.

“Joyce, let me be.”

“Joyce, leave it goddamn alone.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” she’d reply in her grating, even tone that, out of sheer necessity, she reserved for Donald because out of the two of them, he was the most stubborn and, obviously, needed the most help.

Take his neighborhood, for instance, which was in a constant state of utter disrepair. Everywhere, untrimmed bushes ecstatic with outlying branches; olive splattered sidewalks that were absolutely hazardous to walk on; decaying apples; 7 ft.-tall oleanders. The oleander bushes directly out back that someone, the good-for-nothing HOA she guessed, had planted last winter, and that she feared would send their poison into the little garden she maintained on Donald’s adjacent patio.

And now that tea tree directly across from Donald’s place, jabbing like an ingrown eyelash into her peripheral view as she walked by every couple weeks, taunting her on full display, framed in the town house’s single front window. The branches went every which way, no form or containment at all to the thing. Always, there it was! Forcing her to see its wild, free-flowing, encroaching presence.

At Donald’s, she putzed around the back patio, fed the squirrels whole shell-on peanuts, made sure Donald was dead-heading the massive gardenia bush in the way she had instructed countless times (“the entire flower, Donald, the whole thing, like this” and she’d vociferously rip the thing off, at times pulling off a healthy green leaf or two along with the dying flower), and watered the daffodils she had planted around a rusty watering can she had found at Goodwill and thought would look enticingly farm-ish in the strip of dirt between the cement patio and the back slat fence. Her side of the family had once had extensive property in West Marin, after all. She viciously took a broom to the cobwebs inside and out and urgently squashed the frantically running spiders, made sure the dishes were washed and stacked in their cabinets, and then settled down on the couch in the living room where she slept to watch the crazy goings-on in the world and the Romney/Obama presidential campaign as reported by Fox News.

“The world, Donald!” she’d shout from her spot on the couch, slippered feet up, as he later came in from his job as a driver for the Marin Airporter, a six-pack clutched in his right hand that made his whole body—skinny and small—lean slightly to the right and downwards so that he walked ever so slightly bent over with his eyes to the ground.

“Our country! It’s being destroyed by liberals, Donald. Utterly destroyed. There’s no way in hell I’m gonna put up with another four years of liberalism, Donald. No way. This country needs to get back to some good, Christian values. Remember how we were raised, Donald? Remember? With manners and rules and knowing that we would work? Work hard?”

And so the tea tree was just another matter to contend with, whether it technically belonged to them or not. Because the HOA, well, it was obvious they weren’t lifting a finger and didn’t intend to.

Every morning in the kitchen as she slurped from her mug of coffee and got the water going for the oatmeal she made Donald eat, she’d feel the tree poking, poking into the corner whites of her eyes, forcing her to turn to really see it. At first she could see only pieces of it in between the gaps in the cardboard she’d put up against the front window for some privacy it was her God given right to, and then saw it fully when she decided the cardboard should come down every morning to let in the light (“Remember, Donald, light refreshes everything. Cardboard down in the morning.”).

Oh, that wild tea tree, the HOA, liberalism, the overreaching government, lazy moochers; they were all the same, and how they annoyed her, taunted her, forced her to put up with so much bullshit! Mornings, her mug of coffee in hand, large rollers in her white hair, pink robe cinched tightly around her trim waist because she’d always been a looker and made sure she still was, she’d walk out to the sidewalk in front and stand and scowl at the thing. It was unruly. It hadn’t been trimmed in what looked like years. Or, more likely, forever. Little pink blossoms overtaking it, sprawling into the oleander and other tea trees growing against #60’s fence, branches long and short shooting out this way and that.

Afternoons, as she slapped together a cheese and bologna sandwich or warmed up soup in the microwave, she’d see it again. It affected her view! It absolutely offended her. Evenings, as she tossed a steak into the skillet and jammed a fork into and out of two potatoes before plopping them in the microwave—again, there it was. The widely-growing, untrimmed, untamed thing. Assaulting the landscape, impinging upon her view of #60’s brown, wide-slat fence and the nicely trimmed lawn in front.

“That tree, Donald, I can’t stand it. Look at it! Why should I have to put up with that?”

“It doesn’t bother me, Joyce,” Donald would say mornings as he sat at the table in his uniform, slowly scooping up his oatmeal while Fox news played loudly on the TV.

Joyce would look at him, thinking that he looked even smaller than usual, his tiny arms and bony shoulders, that he was shrinking in his old age.

“Well it should, it really should. People pay to have the place taken care of, Donald, the owners do. Idiots. And how is it that nothing is taken care of, then? Where does that money go? It’s like taxes and the government. It’s ridiculous! Don’t you see, Donald? Don’t you see?”

“Joyce, let it goddamn go,” Donald finally said one morning, letting his spoon fall noisily against the side of his bowl. “Leave it goddam alone.” And he arose and buttoned the top button of his crisp white polyester Marin Airporter shirt, and carried his half-eaten oatmeal to the counter without meeting her gaze.

“Excuse me, Donald? No, I’m not letting it goddamn go. I’m not a pushover, Donald. And eat your oatmeal. You’re shrinking, Donald. You need more protein.”

Donald grabbed his wallet, slipped it into his back pocket, pulled on his Members Only jacket, checked his slicked-back peppery gray hair in the hallway mirror, and walked out the door.

“Do you have your key, Donald?” Joyce, in her slippers and robe, walked after him into the quiet morning. “Eat your lunch! Remember to pick up your dry cleaning. Watch the traffic, bunch of asshole drivers out there. You hear me, Donald?”

Well, if the HOA wouldn’t take care of that tree, she sure as hell would. It was a free country last time she checked, but who the hell knew for how long. Would she get paid for it? Would anyone recognize her hard work? God, no! She was used to it. She was used to not being appreciated for everything, everything she did, but still, she did it. She. Did. It.

She supposed that it was only a matter of a trim, and she had sturdy clippers she’d picked up on sale at Home Depot twelve whole years ago, they were that good. So one mid-morning after she’d pulled out her rollers and layered on the hairspray, pulled on her waist-high jeans, still size 2, and gardening gloves, she opened the front door, walked across the sidewalk and opposite lawn to #60’s fence, stood for a moment, and for the first time mere feet from the tree, assessed it with a mumble, and got to work.

She loved the satisfying, succinct sound of the clippers going through the branches. “Click,” and that was that, her accomplishment there on the ground touching the cracked toes of her rubber boots. She first cut all the free-flying ones that were underdeveloped and skinny and rangy, and then she stood back, crossed her arms, sighed powerfully and carefully judged her handiwork. But there was a long branch hiding behind being forced up by the fence, and she hadn’t noticed another by her knees, and, now that she was this close to it, she saw that there were in fact dozens of fresh little shoots running willy-nilly up and down many of the bigger branches. So she got back to work. Nothing more than a little haircut, she thought, somewhat amused, as if this tree were one of her three sons she had made sit for haircuts she’d given them when they were little.

The sun had just cleared Donald’s roof behind. She began to feel sweat under her curls and above her upper lip, in her armpits and behind her knees—a good feeling because it declared her righteousness and work ethic. She stopped, satisfied, and walked backwards to get a better view of the tree, the clippers hanging from her gloved hand, her shirt spattered with a few clinging pink blossoms. She tilted her head one way and the other. Squinted. Took two steps one way, three the other. She sighed loudly, and again.

“Well, I think that’s better, much better,” she said out loud, which was just in time because she wanted to catch Happening Now with Jenna Lee and John Scott and eat lunch, which she always took early for her digestion.

She left the branches in a scattered pile under the tree because she sure as hell wasn’t going to trim and clean up when she very well knew that the Mexican landscapers the HOA employed came every Thursday to do just that in their very lazy way.

After Happening Now, which she watched while eating a sliced turkey, lettuce and tomato sandwich on sourdough and drinking a glass of water with a single slice of lemon, she returned to the kitchen to put the dishes in the sink and noticed with horror that the tree was terribly off-kilter, one side much stubbier than the other.

“Well how the hell,” she let her dishes fall in the sink with a clatter, grabbed her gloves that she had placed atop the piles on the hallway table, and snatched the clippers she’d left leaning in the corner by the front door.

“How the hell,” she said again as she quickly walked to the tree, stared at it, and then backed up to see it from the sidewalk.

“Okay,” she said. “So there and there. And there.”

The sun was high in the sky and the day was already hot, but before a single drop of sweat made it down her temple, she was in the tree, its remaining branches embracing her, and if she felt some possible communion with the tree, with its fresh, earthy smell and simple, earnest life, well, then it started with a spark and instantly died.

First this branch and then another until she had begun to hit the thicker bases of the more substantial branches emerging from the trunk itself where her clippers, as good as they were, just couldn’t make a single, clean cut. So she was forced to take the partially cut branches and keep twisting and twisting until they cracked with a resounding “snap!” that she felt deep in her chest, bringing jagged chunks of the trunk with them. Sometimes the thicker branches were so strong and stubborn that she’d lose her ground and have to find it again by planting her boots more deeply into the weeds and woodchips below and bearing down, feeling, despite all her ailments and joint problems, the remarkable strength of her muscles. And those undisciplined, sprawling pieces of vegetation came free, leaving behind jagged, splintered stumps and pieces of hearty tree that leaked sap and released breaths of cool earthiness and were shockingly white and pale green inside. Joyce, elated by the power of her resolve, never considered, It is too much. With the back of her wrist, she shoved up her hair, flung off a blossom on her cheek, and thought, just a little breeze, now wouldn’t that be nice.

By the end, her clothes were sticking to her and her hair had fallen, the sun was already cresting the roofs of the condos opposite, on the ground before her was a pile of green and pink, dark brown and pale white, and rooted to the dry, wood-chipped ground was a jagged, torn, hacked-up rendition of the tree’s probable pure vision of itself.

She stood there, breathing hard, gloved hands on her hips, a drop of sweat sliding down her back, scratches across her cheeks and bare arms, the pile of tea tree before her, and sighed. It’s not professional, she thought. But I’m not a trained professional, am I.

She then heard a “click,” and another, and turned to see a woman her age, but with stunning black hair that was obviously dyed, with a camera at her face.

“What are you doing?” she asked the woman, her eyes narrowed.

“That’s HOA property and I’m on the landscape committee,” the woman lowered her camera. “You just killed that tree.”

Joyce felt her heart hitting her sternum. Who had been watching her? Were there hidden cameras? Of course there were. Of course! People’s freedoms were being taken, absolutely stripped from them. Well, no, she wasn’t having it! None of it!

This tree needed a trim, lady,” Joyce turned and faced the black-haired woman head-on. “I don’t care who owns this tree, the HOA, you, that bird. This tree was utterly out of control.”

She walked towards the woman, squeezing the clippers in her hand. “I want to know why this HOA does nothing around here. Nothing! I’ve been living here for twenty-three years, well, splitting my time, and in all that time I’ve seen no improvements. I’ve seen this place go to hell, let me tell you. And all I can figure is that you all, what did you say you are?, the ‘landscape committee?’ You all are just plain old lazy. You do nothing. And you know what, you can’t take my picture!” And Joyce lunged for the woman’s camera, but the woman pulled it into her chest, looked at Joyce with wide eyes and backed up.

“I am under obligation to show these photos and report you to the HOA,” she said as she turned and walked away.

Joyce heard  blood in her ears. She would defend herself from this witch. See? One couldn’t put up with any bullshit. One had to stand up for one’s God-given rights. As the woman walked away, Joyce ran into the townhouse, found Donald’s cheap digital camera in one of the kitchen drawers, threw down the clippers and ran back outside. Where’s that bitch? she thought as she ran down the sidewalk and saw the woman walking briskly up ahead. The camera was dead, but she pretended to take photos anyway, coming right up to the woman and clicking away at her back and then the side of her face.

The woman, who seemed to be working her tongue inside her closed mouth and whose eyes were unattractively wide open, stopped. “Go away!” she said with a waver in her voice. “Go away!”

Joyce pressed the button again and again, shoving the camera into the woman’s face and hair. “This is what it feels like. I want a record of you to take to court. Because let me tell you, you don’t want to mess with me or Donald because even though he’s quiet and not much for doing anything, he’s with me and I’m a fighter, let me tell you. I don’t put up with bullshit. No one, not you or the HOA or your ‘landscape committee’ or lawyers or anyone comes between Donald and me.”

“Get away!” the woman waved her hand in front of her sickly pale face as if she were batting away flies, her voice a little higher. She threw her body around and started to jog, hugging her camera into her chest as if it were precious treasure. Joyce followed, snapping, until the woman picked up speed, met the fire lane, and ran down it until turning off onto a sidewalk into the condos at the end of the lane. Joyce, regretfully, couldn’t get to her full speed because of her spinal stenosis. She stopped, watched the woman’s large ass jiggle side-to-side, her elbows pump up and down, her black hair (certainly dyed) shimmy in place across the woman’s back neck fat, and she shouted, “You have floppy breasts! Get a bra, Floppy Breasts!”

She watched until the woman turned and disappeared, leaving in her wake the absolute silence of a late suburban morning.

When the letter came from the HOA, it went first to their landlord who, after reading it, forwarded it to “Donald Wassenstein” with a note and a follow-up phone call that happened to catch Joyce at Donald’s place two weeks later. The owner was a realtor from Mill Valley who had a number of investment properties sprinkled throughout Marin and Sonoma, and quite frankly, could have cared less.

“But that $150 to replace that, what, that tea tree, is that what it is? Well, that’s coming from you, Joyce. Understand?”

“Well, God, Beverly, yes, I understand. But that tree was out of control. I did the blasted HOA a favor! What does it take to get anything done around here? I did what I could and took up my own time and energy—no pay whatsoever—and look who’s getting fined. Well no more, I say. Yes, I’ll pay the goddamn fee, whatever. But no more from me. That’s what I say.”

Later that night, though, as she lay in Donald’s bed upstairs (as she was wont to do when either one of them had the occasional desire because, well, they were only human and had been married, hadn’t they?) where he had his “cave,” replete with a 32-inch screen TV and a mini fridge full of beer, and cream-colored curtains now gray with a tear widening one of them that she had bought him many years ago and that he kept drawn over the sticky windows, she reconsidered.

“Actually,” she propped herself up on an elbow and looked at Donald, naked from the waist up, eyes closed in the dark as if he were asleep, “actually, no! No I won’t pay! Let them pay! Let them take care of the place for a goddamn change. You hear me, Donald?!”

But his eyes were closed and his breath seemed to have deepened. What, did he think she didn’t know he was faking? Did he think she’d simply forget about it, the injustice of it all?

The next morning when he came down the stairs in his crisp Marin Airporter uniform, hair gelled and succinctly parted, there she was cooking bacon in the kitchen, Fox News blasting in the living room.

“Can you believe it?” She looked at him as he pulled the milk out of the fridge. “One hundred and fifty dollars! As if that tree was worth it. I for one know you can go to Orchard Supply and buy any old tree for twenty-five bucks.” She snorted and chuckled and shook her head upon which sat a dozen enormous rollers.

“For god’s sake, Joyce,” he said as he watched the milk fall into the spotty glass in his hand. “Just pay the goddamn $150 and don’t do it again. Leave the trees and shrubs and everything else that ain’t right around here the hell alone.” He returned the milk to the fridge and walked into the attached dining room where he slumped into a chair and eyed the TV, his little shoulders hunched, his little beady eyes eclipsed by loose wrinkly skin so that it looked like he had no lids, just skin flaps and eyes.

“Donald,” she stood in the kitchen with the plastic tongs clutched in her right hand, piercing the smoky air before her shoulder.“you are puny and pathetic.” And with each word she snapped the tongs, the decimated tea tree hovering  behind her in the frame of the front window. She turned to the skillet and flipped the sizzling pieces of bacon. The large rollers in her white hair vibrated with each violent flip. The belt of her pink terry robe was double knotted tightly around her waist.

Out of the corner of her eye, sure, she could see the tree—twisted, ripped and jagged, a single splayed, blunt branch bent at a horrifying angle. It couldn’t talk, the thought had bewilderingly come to her after she’d finished the job two weeks ago, not understanding why she had thought it. The tree was dumb, didn’t have feelings or thoughts, a piece of vegetation.

You couldn’t come to things with sweetness and compromise. She had never been a thumb-twiddler, an ass-sitter. You had to demand what you wanted, what you knew was right. Sometimes you just had to get the job done regardless of whether it was considered “correct” or not, or whether anyone else would do it or not in this godless, unruly world.

“Be a man, Donald! That thing down there?” She pointed at his crotch with the oily tongs. “That’s not just for last night.”

As she strolled into the dining room with a plate full of bacon and let it fall upon the table from a height of an inch or two so that she’d get the satisfaction of hearing it land with a bang and see Donald startle just a bit, his puny shoulders shaking, his knobby backbone reflexively straightening, she narrowed her eyes at him, “I’m gonna fight this one, Donald. You know I am.” And she pivoted on her slippers and walked briskly back to the kitchen.

“You just do that,” he said to his bacon before taking a big bite.

Back in the kitchen, the window directly before her, she couldn’t help but have to see the tree full on.

For a moment, the tongs dripping oil onto the laminate floor, Fox News coming loudly from the living room, Donald crunching on his bacon and she thinking Imagine! Him getting last night and bacon too, she, for the first time, stopped. She stopped and stared. They faced each other. the dead tree and Joyce.

Sommer Schafer

Sommer Schafer’s latest stories are in Monday Night, Boulevard, Hobart, North American Review, Catapult, The Carolina Quarterly, and Fiction. She is the senior editor of The Forge Literary Magazine. Visit her at