It was Robert's first Christmas season living alone. Even his new apartment seemed huge, cavernous. There were a few sparse decorations; fake holly here, a plastic Santa Claus there. There was conspicuously no mistletoe.
Robert sat his vast tract of apartment, breathing. Slowly, an idea formed in his head. He stood up, grunting a little, and hiked over to the empty corner next to the door to his parking lot of a deck. Turning around, he sat down heavily on the floor and looked out across his domain. He had never been to this corner before. It was virgin corner, ne'er touched by man in man's long two-week tenure in this place. He was brave, he was bold, he was too single to be old. He was an explorer, an adventurer, the vanguard.
Robert smiled a little, he felt it, and thought it was probably real. After a few minutes passed, he staggered to his feet. He put on an extra pair of socks and some tennis shoes, a sweatshirt over his oxford, and a knit cap his son had given him last father's day that said Just do it. He found his old ski parka and donned it and, as an afterthought, shoved a packet of dried fruit in one zippered pocket. He couldn't find any gloves that matched, so he gave up on them. He made sure his credit card was in his wallet and his wallet in his pants pocket, found his keys, and locked up after himself.
His car was aging, but Robert was glad of that for this trip -- scratches wouldn't really matter. He checked to make sure he still had some twine in his trunk, crowded into the front seat, and pulled away.
He hit the highway doing almost eighty and started to slow, then kept it up. He felt invincible, the law couldn't hold him. He popped a Johnny Mathis Christmas tape into his tape deck and sang at the top of his lungs.
"OOoooohhh, the weather outside is frightfuul, but the fiiiiiire is soooo deelightfuuul . . ."
He made good time, singing when he knew the words and whistling when he didn't. Sometimes he harmonized. Some people looked at him strangely, so he sang louder and opened his mouth wider.
After almost an hour, Robert took an exit for a small town. He obeyed the speed limit through town, craning his neck to see the Christmas garland and lights festooned from the lampposts and storefronts. A giant tree, more than twenty feet high, towered over the road in the center of town. It was only decorated two-thirds of the way to the top, but Robert thought it looked nice anyway. He passed out of town and turned north on a frozen, rutted dirt road.
The road was in bad shape. A few times Robert thought he was stuck, that he'd have to tramp all the way back to town for a tow, but he managed to free the car every time. He was especially worried about coming back out, but he had one advantage; he now knew where the bad spots were. He had the music off, but he sang under his breath anyway.
The dirt parking lot was completely frozen over. Usually there was some brown showing here or there, or some gravel and cat litter for traction, but this year the place was one lumpy sheet of ice. There were several other cars, and Robert almost hit one of them on a short skid. He finally managed to install his car in a small slot at the end of the lot without too much trouble, but he made sure to wade through the tufts of brown prairie grass and small snow drifts at the edge of the lot on his way to the small shack.
"Y'ever been out here before?" The man asked, handing Robert a saw. He was tall and slim, and wore a gray one-piece work outfit and a red checkered cap with ear flaps. His boots were muddy, which Robert couldn't understand with all the snow and ice around.
"Oh yeah," he answered, "We been coming out here for ten, twelve years at least."
"Just you this year, huh?"
"Yeah. Just me."
"Well, ya probably know all this, but they want me to tell you anyway. Sign over there'll tell you the same stuff, but we gotta have it for legal reasons. Anyway, lot backs up to a forest preserve. Don't cut nothin' out of there, it's illegal. Safest just not to go in there at all, it's cold and gettin' late. Gotta be careful, it's kinda hard to tell where the preserve starts and we end 'cause of the way we do things.
"We grow 'em natural, not in rows like most places. We just kinda let 'em sprout up where they may, and you can take any of 'em, we charge by the foot. A lot of nice blues if you cross the road to the west there, and there's a few good scotch left if you head kinda northeast. You'll have to go a ways from the office, here, the close ones were gone two weeks ago. 'Less you want somethin' overly small or really huge. You need help draggin' 'er back, let me know. We can shake 'em and net 'em and tie 'em to your car for ya right here. Merry Christmas."
He set out due north. The saw was cold, and he wished for gloves, but the place was beautiful. As he walked, Robert descended into a kind of ravine. The sides of the place were covered with thick pines of all shapes, but most were bigger than what he wanted. He walked slowly, taking his time and enjoying being outside, communing with nature. It wasn't hard to imagine himself as a real explorer. There was no one around. Most of the trees in the ravine were really large or pretty small, or twisted from growing on a hillside, so stumps were few and far between here.
He thought of himself as a trapper, wading through the snow and fighting to survive. His horse had frozen one night, and he had to check the traps on foot. Most were empty -- a cold snap kept the animals from venturing out. He was starving. He was lonely. He was romantic.
He walked on, lost in his own wilderness. He stopped in a particularly pretty spot, pulled his coat down over his butt, and sank into the snow. He retrieved the dried fruit from his pocket, his last bit of food, and replenished his strength. He thought idly that he was too fat to be a mountain man.
A small stream, now frozen solid, snaked around the area where he sat. Spiny evergreens crowded around him, one arching hugely overhead. Soft, strangling snow covered everything, trying to soften the hard wood and fight the tall grass. It was a scene of rugged natural splendor, the kind Robert had always reveled in on postcards and in magazines. He sank back into the snow, the cold just beginning to bleed through his coat. It was not yet unpleasant. He closed his eyes, and the world was silence.
Silence. The snow covered everything, totally blanketing all sound. He listened to the stillness, a stillness Robert couldn't even achieve in his own bathroom, even with the fan off. If he did starve to death here, nothing would change, and the world would still be still.
His chest felt a little tight, and he could definitely feel the cold. Suddenly, a few yards behind him, he could hear a soft chuf-chuf sound. He jumped up, spraying snow everywhere, and stumbled a few steps before turning around.
Robert felt more than a little foolish as a small brown blur streaked away from him. No reason to be afraid, of course, he thought to himself. If a little thing like a rabbit lived out here and was successful, why couldn't he, Robert, walk around for an hour, try it out? Besides, he was probably no more than a hundred yards from a house or a highway at any given time. There were other people out here, too, as the cars Robert had seen in the parking lot proved.
He shook his head a little and looked around for his saw. He didn't see it. He had to dig through the snow with already numbing hands for several minutes to find where the snow had swallowed it.
He picked it up, then opened his hand. The saw hung stubbornly on for a second, frozen to his skin, and dropped back to the ground. Sighing, he pulled his stinging hand into the sleeve of his coat and picked the saw up that way. His arm was compacted, and he cold feel his shoulder begin to cramp.
He walked on. Despite his precautions, his butt had gotten numb and a little wet in the snow. He shook his legs as he walked, trying to reestablish circulation. He passed out of the ravine this way and then topped a small hill. To his right lay the path most taken, trampled and studded with dark and light colored stumps of all sizes. Ahead of him spread out what was obviously the forest preserve.
Strong, tall trees of all kinds pushed and shoved each other around on the perimeter; oak, birch, maple, pine, elm. Small shrubs and ground cover choked the floor of the place, slashing at the thin cover of snow that had penetrated the canopy. A wire fence seemed to hold back an invasion of rugged, awe inspiring nature.
To his left he could see the dirt road. On the far side grew a stand of blue spruce trees which looked almost manicured, full and perfect. Several would fit in Robert's living room. The scene was pretty and reminded Robert of a sampler his grandmother had had. He walked to the nearest fence post, leaned on it. He thought he saw a way, not quite a path, one could take to get into the forest preserve. Even with the numbing blanket of snow, he could smell the wilderness.
Something in the forest preserve moved. It was far away, maybe not very large. Robert had come here for a Christmas tree. It beginning to get dark. Robert was tired and cold.
With a sigh, Robert chopped at the fence post softly with the saw, taking a small chip out of the wood. Turning west, he walked with the fence to the road, then across it. On the far side, Robert found a tree that looked nice and wasn't too big. After checking for squirrels, he cut it down and dragged it back to the shack through the gutter at the side of the road. The ground there was fairly flat and had nothing to drag at Robert's Christmas tree, or trip up Robert himself.
Robert paid for the tree with his credit card. He paid cash for the man to shake out the dead needles with a machine that looked like an oversized blender, and then Robert paid again to have him encase the thing in a plastic net and tie it to the car for him.
"Huh." Robert said to the man as he looked at his tree strapped to his car. "Looks like a missile or something."
"Yeah, I heard that before, sometimes." The man answered. "Not planning to kill anyone, are ya?" He nudged Robert with his elbow.
"No." Robert answered him. "Not likely. Got no one around to kill." With that, Robert squeezed into his car.
Dusk had begun to attack in earnest, and Robert had trouble steering his car and
keeping to the road. He barely made it past some of the rough spots he had noticed on the
way in. When he got about halfway back to the little town a small rodent dashed into the
road. Robert swerved and slid into the ditch, wedging his car at the bottom. He had two flat
tires. There was no place civilized in sight.
© 1998 Tom Irish, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This story may possibly end up to be one of three. I've shown Robert at middle age, now I'd like to give a glimpse of him as a young man and an old man. We'll see how it goes. I was inspired to write this story by the story that will someday come before it, chronologically. I have an idea for the story about young Robert, but it's proving harder to get through than this one was. "Mid-Life Robert" seemed to write itself, and it was finished in about two days. Of all the things that I've written, this one has the least amount of biography in it. Only a few parts of the scenery are real to my life.