By Stephen Ground
Phil was dying.
He called Sunday morning, when he knew he’d wake me, catch me sleeping, so I couldn’t lie about doing something else. Said to come right over. Hurry. I rolled, tugged on last week’s jeans, brushed my teeth, fed my cat and cleaned its shit, toasted a bagel but burnt it, so I scrapped it and waited on a second.
I’d heard this tune from my oft-ailing father since he and Mom split when I was twelve. She’d diagnosed him hypochondriacal, desperate for attention from a child, his only, who’d desired the same for most of his life. I didn’t agree, but Mom was sharp, knew Phil best, and she knew it. I didn’t argue, and Dad, as he preferred, continued his string of self-diagnosed maladies: gout, malaria, flesh-eating disease. Never substantiated, but enough to sustain a short-lived Illness Pool where I won a crisp, cool hundred dollar bill off Mom, correctly guessing the unholiest trinity: hand foot and mouth, anal fissures, gonorrhea. So after another claim Darkness was closing, time expiring, I reacted with the urgency of a medic on vacation – ate my perfect bagel, read an article on my phone, had a second cup of coffee, then meandered across town in my truck, full stops and running nary an amber.
I parked along the curb outside his house. Everything seemed normal – no weird smells, hedges trimmed, garden weeded. I let myself in and recoiled – not death, but filth. I hurdled trash and waded through clouds of flies, wondering why Phil, never shy to complain, hadn’t called sooner. I pushed the bedroom door – his gaunt frame prone on the bed, arms folded like a slain crusader. I knelt and shook him gently; whispered, Hey, it’s me. I’m here.
His eyes creaked open; he smiled.
They shut, breathing slowly stopped. The smile remained.
I sat in my car and dialed the doctor. Phil had resorted, for most of his life, to drifting from clinic to clinic like a dog hunting scraps, unable to find a doctor willing to see his imagination three times a week, or shill out the requisite prescriptions to sate him. The number I dialed was an agency, and the doc-to-order, thirty minutes or free, arrived in eighteen. I led her to the bedroom – sprouting from Phil’s chest was a sapling, four feet high, a small, sleeping face on its narrow trunk. His toes and fingers stretched to the floor, seeking sustenance. She gasped.
I can’t help you.
I need the –
You need an arborist, she said, dashing to her car and tearing off.
– death certificate.
One final middle finger. My cursing was interrupted by a gentle wheeze – the face on the tree was snoring.
Hello? I said, snapping my fingers – it startled awake, Phil’s voice spitting from the mouth carved like initials in a heart.
It’s almost one. Turn on the radio, the ballgame’s starting.
I tripped over a pile of laundry and fell to the floor.
Hurry, he said. Sanchez is pitching and he’s won four in a row. I don’t want to miss it.
I flicked on the radio and sat on a chair in the corner.
What do you think you’re doing?
Listening to the game, I said.
That’s what I’m doing, he said. You’re making me a rye and ginger.
I’m having one too.
One, he said, rustling his leaves.
I left and poured the drinks, his strong but mine stronger. I dropped his beside the bed and sat; he shouted, How do you expect me to drink it down there? I lifted it, but he said, You’ll dribble. Fetch a straw.
The sight of him perished fresh in my mind, I retrieved a bendy from the kitchen, and dropped it in his drink.
Hold it up, he ordered. I did and he drained it, then guzzled mine.
Liberal on your pour, weren’t you?
I sat in the corner. Why’d you leave, Phil?
Can you please call me Dad?
Can you please explain why you left?
Must we do this now?
I thought you were dying, I said. When would you rather talk?
It was a lifetime ago, he said. No need to rehash.
No, I said, we’re going to talk because for the first time in my life, you can’t run. Spill.
He coughed. Your mother always liked you better. You were getting older, and I could see the way she looked at you, felt the way she ignored me. Embarrassing, replaced before you hit puberty.
I stood. I’m going home.
Because you’re not dying.
You look fine.
He rustled. This is fine to you?
You’re not dying.
His voice softened – I don’t want to be alone.
I sat, read an article on my phone; glanced up to share an interesting stat when I heard burbling lips, releasing breath like drowsy exhaust.
I napped in the chair while he slept, and woke to him a foot taller, broader, greener. He grinned.
About time, he said. I’m board. Get it? I said I’m board, like bored, but with an A. Tree? Wood? Board? Bored? Get it? He crackled with delight; I stood and stumbled towards the door. Where are you going?
You’re not leaving?
I was gonna trim your leaves, I said. You’re shaggy. Maybe a drink.
Might as well use the good stuff, he said. No use saving it.
I left, splashed water on my face, cupped it to my lips, wiped my chin and returned empty-handed. He glared, but I ignored it.
Where are your shears?
You look awful, I said. A little around the edges, to make you presentable.
He took a deep, gulping breath, and his leaves thickened, expanded half a foot – tickled the ceiling.
Don’t worry, he said. I’m an old man on my last legs, no one cares what’s sprouting from me anymore. He chuckled. I’m going to nap, put down your phone and read a book.
Can’t I get you some water?
No, he said. Sit, read.
He closed his eyes, shuffled like a cat getting comfy, wheezed. I searched the bookshelf and found a tome on Existentialism, dogeared, queries filling margins in wobbly scrawl.
What’s wrong? I said.
He stretched his mouth. I’m thirsty.
I dropped the book and wandered to the garage, found a green plastic watering can long-claimed by spiders, and filled it. He moaned as I sprinkled his roots, worming through cracks in search of nutrients nonexistent in Canadian Club or Canada Dry. He rustled when the can was empty – ripe, veiny leaves tumbled to the floor. His canopy had quickly overgrown the tiny room, branches arching.
Thank you, he said. I feel much better.
Can I go? I said. You’re not dying. You look healthier than ever.
I don’t want to be alone.
I sat and waited as Phil drifted off.
That evening a neighbour knocked – a casserole of lasagna noodles, sliced beef liver, creamed corn, onions and jiggly, chunky, gravy-ish goo cradled in her withered hands. She was two decades older than him but had taken a shine, Phil’s charm appearing historically like Whack-a-Moles, but only to those too slow to knock him back.
I heard he was under the weather, she said. This is his favourite.
I welcomed her, anxious for a break and excited to see her reaction. I opened the bedroom and nudged her in.
You look strong, she said, caressing his craggy bark. Never stronger in your life, I’d bet my coin purse on it.
She turned to me.
I keep my Bingo money there, so that counts for something – like I needed convincing. She stroked his trunk, tickled branches, gasped as leaves fell like rose petals.
Will you stay for dinner? he said. She plopped a lizard kiss on him – flinched, plucked a sliver from her tongue.
Sorry, she said. Can’t tonight, I’m having dinner with the man who just moved in two doors down. She smirked. But I wanted you to have a little treat.
She winked, toddled out – he bellowed and sprouted through the roof, ceiling crashing, branches snapping, leaves falling like heavy snow. He laughed, waning light filtering; he gazed down and said, unclouded by complaint or demand – Thank you, son. I needed that.
He rustled his remaining leaves and glanced at the casserole.
You can throw that out. I only ate it because escorts were getting expensive.
He slept three hours after she left. I kept busy alphabetizing his bookshelf, then his clothes by country where they were manufactured. In the back of his closet I found a tiny humidor – I didn’t even know he smoked, but there were probably lots of things I didn’t know.
Is that you? he said.
I popped out with two stogies.
I lit his then slid it in his mouth – he puffed methodically, deep in thought.
What? I said.
I’m considering what my colleagues would say if they saw me now.
He laughed, coughed, dropped the cigar. I returned it, then lit my own.
You’re not still worried? I said.
I was never worried. Have I ever lived with the slightest regard for the opinions of others?
You were a great professor, I said, unsure if it was true. He was intelligent, driven, prone to the occasional stroke of brilliance, but could he instruct? Show compassion? Empathy? I’d never seen it, but I imagine he had, to a cluster of brownnosers, or a keen, busty T.A. All I knew was it was too late to recoup the lost years, missed connections, bonding forged through ballgames, fishing trips, shared books, and stories from his youth to illuminate my way. It was lost, but as we smoked and leaves tumbled in the evening breeze, I knew it was what we had.
I’m sorry, I said, dropping my cigar in a glass. Leaves continued to fall.
Phil smiled – a quick intake of breath. I’m glad you didn’t end up like me.
A clump of leaves fell, and his eyes closed. In the pale, early evening, a single leaf clung to a branch at his peak.
Dad? I said, touching his trunk.
A gust of wind stole down the narrow street, twisting across his lawn and liberating the final leaf, floating it to my waiting hands – it crisped and browned, crumbled, scattered like pollen in a breeze. Phil’s features were gone. I sat on the floor, stared at my phone – finally called Mom, to ask for her gardener’s number.
A graduate of York University, Stephen Ground now lives in his head – scraping by peddling floors, sometimes unsolicited advice. Find his work in The Esthetic Apostle, Sky Island Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Sunlight Press, and others.