DEDWOOD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the winter a stiff wind toppled a tree into Broome's back yard. It was dead before it hit the snow, in fact almost two years before. Broome had always meant to do something about it, though he never pinpointed exactly what. And then it was too late. It snapped off at its trunk two feet above the ground and wrapped itself in the power line on its almighty rush to earth. His hand was forced.

What he did was call the power company. They reconnected the electrical line and in about five hours his life was back to normal. Except for one thing. He now had a dead tree in his back yard: a tree that was no longer just simply dead and therefore possible to ignore, but a tree that was actively dead, lying face down on his lawn, its dark, rotted branches extended grotesquely in a final, dying lunge at his patio deck.

"Lucky no one was out here," said Harris, his neighbor.

Broome frowned. "It was midnight in a windstorm."

"Still, it could have hit a burglar," said Harris. "And they sue."

Broome's house sat on a half-acre lot thick with trees. He had paid extra for his little forest, agreeing with the Realtor's gush that trees would provide an extra dimension of tranquillity and security. He remembered that conversation as he walked the length of the dead tree the next morning, shivering. It looked blacker lying against the wind-whipped canvas of snow. And it seemed much bigger laid out horizontally than it ever did standing up alongside its pals.

"Ironical, isn't it?" said Harris. "I mean you didn't cut it down. And now you have to cut it up."

Broome looked back toward his house, watching his breath disappear against the gray-white siding. He did not feel tranquil or secure. What he did feel was an extra dimension of anxiety, and he turned abruptly and kicked the tree hard. Though long dead, it hurt his toe unbelievably. It barely moved at all.

"In the spring," he said through gritted teeth as he limped back to his house.

For the next four months the tree lay unattended, gradually disappearing under a covering of snow. In May, the grass in Broome's back yard shot up to knee height and the dead tree was again almost invisible. Broome had left his gas-powered push mower out all winter and twice he had tried to start it without success. He might have left it at that, the grass might have reached armpit level, but Harris, who mowed his lawn twice a week on a tractor equipped with a drink holder, wouldn't allow it.

"Bandits like to hide in that stuff," he warned him one Saturday. "They crawl right up to your deck and leap out at you and you never know they're there until they've got their hand around your throat. Didn't you ever hear that crime dog on TV warning people to mow their lawn?"

Broome eventually got the mower fixed, but it wasn't the grass or bandits that worried him. He'd surprised himself by the amount of brooding he'd done all winter long over the tree. He'd tried to ignore it, but it just wouldn't leave him alone. Every time he peeked out his window he saw not a lovely yard with its graceful stand of trees, but the elongated hump under the snow, or a dark, menacing presence lying in the weeds like some belly-skulking murderer waiting to pounce. It was a nagging detail hanging over his head, an unsolved problem. Broome was a multi-degreed manager who made his living by solving problems.

Meanwhile, the guests he'd entertained in the past four months had likewise noticed the tree, despite its natural camouflage.

"It reminds me of Moby Dick," breathed one who viewed it in winter. She had added cryptically "whales never forget." Another swore she saw it moving, ever so slightly, toward the house. Broome saw it repeatedly in his dreams and even found himself using the tree in metaphors during sales meetings at work. His startling "get rid of the deadwood" tantrum to his supervisory staff was soothed away by understanding colleagues as unresolved sylvan conflicts at home.

Broome had never had to deal with a dead tree before. He'd never owned a tree for that matter, dead or alive. In the city, where he'd grown up, the trees grew in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. When they got unruly the city dispatched crews to trim them or spray them or, in some very unruly cases, to cut them down.

Broome spent his childhood in a row house with a tiny apron of grass out back. His father had not even owned a lawn mower. And, anyway, there were no trees. No, the plain fact was that nothing had ever died on Broome before, and he didn't particularly like the idea of a dead tree or a dead anything being out there in his yard. Instead, he started thinking of it as "an old log" that had stumbled accidentally onto his lawn and collapsed -- an uninvited guest who just wouldn't leave.

After he'd repaired the mower and spent a long weekend trimming all the weeds and crab grass in the yard, he squatted down next to the tree for his first good close-up look. As he watched hundreds of ants scurrying across the peeling bark, he began to develop a strategy.

"My brother-in-law has a chain saw," offered Harris. "He works dirt cheap."

Broome nodded politely. He held to the belief that a man should solve his own troubles. He was already resigned to the fact that he must deal with this tree himself. His first plan was to haul the tree to the curb, thinking that once there, it would become someone else's problem. The trash men could pick it up, or maybe it would just not look as intimidating in the roadway. Maybe it would even roll away, stumble off into someone else's yard. With luck it would be stolen.

He went to the hardware store and bought a heavy rope and spent the afternoon studying a book on knot tying. He fitted the line around several of the stouter branches on the wooden cadaver and pulled on a pair of heavy duty work gloves and began to heave. The tree would not budge. Not an inch.

"You know how much that baby weighs?" Harris was out on his deck, relaxing beneath the giant umbrella that rose above his new deck furniture. Broome's face was beach-ball red, his face and shirt soaked with sweat. The rope had worn a crease into his shoulder.

"A ton, easy. You'll probably get a hernia."

Broome wrestled with the tree dilemma all week long. The following Saturday he took a shovel out to the yard and started to dig a narrow trench alongside the tree.

"You're not doing what I think you're doing?" Harris had stopped his tractor to watch Broome digging the tree's grave. "And what're you gonna do with the dirt? Have you thought of that? Haven't you ever seen a grave? They have this hump over them. Your yard is gonna look pretty weird with a big, long hump running its length."

Broome dug all afternoon, working blisters into his hands in spite of the work gloves. The more he dug the more he grudgingly realized Harris had a point about the dirt. There was a considerable mountain of it already and he hadn't even gotten down two feet. He stopped and looked again at the tree. It was far from being just a simple log. Its thick branches ran off at odd angles, and they would either have to be sawed off or a series of angled trenches would have to be dug, in just the right pattern, so the tree would fit snugly into his lawn.

While Harris was barbecuing chicken, Broome finished tamping the last of the dirt back into the trench. "Let me give you my brother-in-law's number," he hollered. But Broome was too tired to respond. During the week he stopped at several chain saw dealers and was scared off not only by the price but by the growing certainty that if he had one of these machines in his hand he would somehow figure a way to saw off his own legs. Instead, he bought an ax.

"Knew a guy once who chopped his foot off with one of those," said Harris after Broome had taken his first couple of whacks at the tree. They weren't as satisfying as Broome had thought whacks should be. When the blade of the ax bit into the tree, it spewed dead bark and splinters up into his face and then he had to wiggle and work the blade out of the wood so he could raise it high over his head and come down again with another whack. During the week, Broome had actually thought this chopping business might be fun. But it was harder work than trying to pull the tree with the rope or even digging the trench. He found it particularly difficult to get the ax head to bite into the same gouge it had made in the tree on its previous whack, and after 15 minutes, the tree trunk was scarred with half a dozen ugly wounds.

He considered burning it, dousing the thing with gasoline and reducing it to ashes that could be easily sucked up by his wet-and-dry shop vacuum. But the likelihood of burning down his entire forest and possibly his house showed him the folly of that plan. He even considered selling his house and moving back to the city.

In the end, depressed and defeated, he surrendered to the inevitability of Harris' brother-in-law. He arranged to be gone all day Saturday when the chain-sawing was scheduled, unable to face the humiliation of being there when the deed was done. A man, after all, doesn't rely on his neighbor's brother-in-law to solve his problems and remain a man for very long.

He drove around for hours playing motivational tapes on his car stereo. When he returned home in late afternoon, he walked into his back yard half expecting the tree to be there, to hear Harris explaining that his brother-in-law had screwed up and cut off his own legs. Or that bandits had dropped out of the trees and slit his throat. Instead he found only a matted strip of yellowed grass where the tree had lain for months.

Broome stood over the deadened ground and felt curiously empty. Lightheaded, he stumbled to the tree stump and sat staring at the spot where the tree had been. This should have been his moment of triumph. The millstone around his neck had been lifted. Other than the flattened grass, there was no sign that the tree had ever existed.

Harris came out on his deck and waved. Broome pretended not to notice. "It was a beech," he called. "My brother-in-law knows trees. He said it was a beech tree. Great wood."

"A beech," said Broome.

"Great for firewood."

Broome nodded.

"Said you'd really appreciate it come winter."

Again Broome nodded, only half listening. Then, abruptly, he stood up from the stump.

"Did you say -- "

"Around the side."

Broome moved quickly to the far corner of the house and stopped. There was the tree, cut up into 2-foot lengths, each stacked on top of the other. He hesitantly reached out and hefted one of the logs. It felt like a newborn babe, though Broome had never held one in his life.

" 'Course it's a bit ironical," said Harris, coming closer. "I mean, I tried to tell him. Hell, you don't even have a fireplace."

TH "It's OK," said Broome, cradling the wood. "I'll take it from here."

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