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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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Return to lately 2004.

the most precious, which we cannot hold
march 1, 2004

This past week, during a day of unseasonably warm temperature, seventy degrees, Mary and I decided to cut down a large limb growing from one of the trees at the rear of our property.

Our backyard looks like a park. It's filled with bushes, vines, flowers. You walk around by taking different grass and dirt paths through the plantings. It took us ten years to get it that way. We open our back door, off the kitchen, step outside, breathe in all that rich oxygen, and decide which path we want to walk down. I'm one of those people who believe places do give off vibrations. Our little park always gives us a great sense of peace, and happiness.

To which trees greatly contribute, not only by their spread, but their height. I sit in one of the chairs at back, sipping a beer, while Mary gets up, pruning shears in hand, wanders down the sunlight and swaying shadows of a path, to a riot of lantana growing on a slope, snipping away the overreaching branches to give more warmness to the lavender rising underneath, and as I watch her, my eye is pleased, black iris expanding, not only by the colors in which she stoops and prunes, but by the incredible height of the trees around her. Mountains are dead, buildings are dead. Nothing living reaches as high towards Heaven, as trees.

So I love trees, and I love that we actually "own" trees, in that they're on our land, something so much cooler to own, to my mind, than diamonds or mazaratis. Sometimes I stand at the base of one of our trees, and although I don't hug it, I do lean my chest against it, looking straight up its slowly twisting trunk, gray and black, at its dizzying height, the strong, sensual ripples of its spreading limbs. I'm fascinated by the insects that live on trees, born there, dying there, in the small world of ridged bark. And, of course, the smell of the bark, different from tree to tree, even among the same species.

The limb we wanted to cut down was about twelve feet off the ground, about thirty feet long. It grew at a downwards incline, so that its snaking length reached, grew into, a stand of Buford Hollies we had along our western property line. This was not good. This suffocating green hand atop the red-berried hollies stunted them from growing taller than seven feet.

So we had to do something. We first noticed the problem last Summer, but I didn't want to cut the limb then, because whenever you do cut a tree limb as thick as this one, you have to consider the weight of the limb, the danger and destruction it can cause when it comes down off its tree; and the thousands of green leaves growing on it, in the heat of Summer, contributed significantly to that weight.

So we waited until the tree shed its leaves, then waited some more because it was too cold and windy.

When we were ready, we carried, on its long, long side, our twelve foot stepladder into our back yard, stepping carefully with it over iris and daffodil beds, laying it down, in all its aluminum and orange structural integrity, on a dirt path in front of the tree.

Lying there, on its back, the ladder looked like an incredibly elongated stretcher. That must have given the tree some pause. A moment later, I quietly lowered to the ground, beside the stepladder, our chain saw.

Like that moment when the dentist, big eyes above a starched white surgical mask, asks you to keep your mouth open, then receives, under your jaw, from his assistant, the syringe filled with the pale yellow of Novocain.

Except in our case, the chain saw wouldn't work. We used it last year, didn't have a problem. This loud power, vibrating in both hands' grip. But now, kneeling in the dirt, following the truly elaborate instructions to get the thing working, pull this lever out, push this bar back, slide this button forward, pull up on this cord, the engine wouldn't turn over.

I resisted kicking it, although I did at one point characterize it, glaring down at its bright yellow colors on the chocolate dirt, as a "fucking piece of junk".

Anyway, I wanted to take the limb down that day, so that meant hand-sawing.

We don't have a hand saw per se, but we do have a plastic-handled saw blade, really just a glorified pen knife, the blade about six inches in length, no longer straight but rippled, from past heavy duty sawings, but serrated. The limb I wanted to saw down was about six inches wide, probably ten inches deep, so theoretically, it was possible.

Mary and I maneuvered the twelve foot step ladder up against the left side of the trunk, whereupon I clambered up the ladder with my pitiful blade.

Normally, you cut off a heavy tree limb with three cuts.

First, you make a cut under the limb, a few inches from the trunk, just beyond the "collar" of the limb. The reason why you do that is so that the limb, as it bends down away from the tree, falling, doesn't pull bark down the trunk, which would wound the tree, allowing moisture, disease and insects to get into the tree.

Second, you cut down from the top of the limb, to the right of your bottom cut, until the limb's weight, loosened by your cut, brings the limb down, snapping it from the tree.

Third, you go back to the stump of the limb, and trim it to just beyond the collar. The collar of a tree limb contains hormones which causes the tree to heal over the cut section, sealing the tree from infection.

With a chain saw, this would have been easy. But with a pathetic little serrated knife, it would just be too much to have to cut through the density of all that wood twice. So I decided to place the under-limb cut right up against the limb collar, and start the upper-limb cut at the collar.

The under cut, sawing upwards from the underside of the limb with both hands gripped around the plastic handle, to a height of two inches, took ten minutes of constant sawing. Once I was finished, I climbed back down the ladder to sit for a while, drinking bottled water.

After my breathing was normal again, I went back up the ladder, my shoes ten feet off the ground, and began the incredibly tedious process of sawing, sawing, sawing down through the top of the limb.

Every twenty minutes, forearm muscles bulging, back of my short sleeve shirt dark with shoulder sweat, I lowered myself off the ladder, plodded over to my white plastic chair, sat down, drank a lot of water, waited for my heart to return to its normal thump.

I kept at it for two hours. I was determined, before I went inside for the evening, that that limb was going to be on the ground.

After about an hour and a half of sawing, back muscles burning, watching the little bits of saw dust fall away from the monotonous serrated back and forth of my blade, the thin line of separation I had sawed down the limb began to widen, until it was a wedge perhaps an inch wide. Proof my sawing was paying off. As I continued sawing, I heard whispered snaps and pops in the big limb, each individual wood fiber, out of the ten thousand joining the limb to the tree, giving up its clutch. I pressed my wet ear against the limb, sawing away, hearing in the wood more and more faint bubbles of release.

Sounds started coming from the Buford Hollies. At first I thought it was drops of rain, but then I realized it was the long, long, heavy limb gradually setting down atop the hedge, bending its glossy green leaves.

So still I sawed, I sawed on and on, dropping down the ladder for more water, climbing back up, feeling light-headed, dizzy, but still sawing back and forth, determined.

At one point, after another break, I looked up at the limb and realized I had pretty much sawed through its wood on that side. I walked towards the front of our yard, following the lowering limb, until it was only a few feet above my head, then jumped straight up, grabbing onto the roughness of the limb, bending my knees up, yanking down with my double-handed grasp around the limb, trying to snap it off the tree. That didn't work, but the end of the limb, thirty feet away from the tree, was at least lowered to waist height.

We brought out another step ladder, this one eight feet high. I positioned it on the right side of the limb, climbed up, and began sawing from that side. After another twenty minutes, looking at the limb from all angles, I believed I had sawed completely through the limb, and that, in fact, the limb was now separated from the tree, but still pressed against it, by its weight.

The trick, I felt, was to shove the separated base of the limb off the tree trunk.

Being smart, I had us first collapse the twelve foot ladder standing on the other side of the trunk, which we no longer needed, out of harm's way. When a limb that heavy falls, if it landed on the step ladder, it would crush it, bending its admirably straight lines into curves.

Next, I had Mary stand far away from the tree.

I climbed back up the eight foot step ladder, looking down, past my sneaker laces, to see where I should jump once the limb starting falling. The danger with removing a limb this heavy and long was that it had so many side-sprouting branches, those branches, hitting the ground before the trunk itself, would act as springs, bouncing the limb back up, dangerously, in directions it was impossible to predict. I had seen this happen before, full-grown men knocked backwards off their feet as they watched a limb fall from where they thought was a safe distance.

Standing near the top of the ladder, all precautions taken, I placed both my palms against the rough side of the limb, gave it a shoulder-contracting shove.

The sawed base of the limb slid off the tree's trunk more easily than I anticipated, the tangle of its branches above slamming down on me, knocking me an involuntary two steps down the ladder.

There was that awful moment where you don't control the situation, you just have to hope you survive it, like being tumbled through cresting surf, as the weight of the limb's upper branches fell on top of me, then I came to, clinging to the ladder, but pinned against the aluminum rungs, like Garfield flattened against a car's side window.

I literally couldn't move. Branches were pressed against me from all sides, pinning my chest, the fronts of my arms and legs against the hard steps of the ladder.

Mary rushed forward from the ground below, wanting to help.

"Get back. The limb may fall some more." I was worried she might get cut. She takes blood-thinning drugs to prevent another stroke.

After about five minutes of my chest and hips being pressed against the ladder's rungs under the heavy thicket of branches on my back, I was able to work my right foot free. I slowly slid off the side of the ladder, dropping to the ground. My forearms were cut up with curlicues from the branches digging across them, but otherwise, I was fine.

Later, after a few more gulps of cold water, my throat stretched upwards, sweaty Adam's apple bobbing, I walked along the length of the felled limb, its height twice mine, the length itself thirty feet, like walking alongside the crazy-boned skeleton of a beached whale.

I said I would bring it down, and I did.

We had a cold beer outside, Spaten Optimator, then went in. Later, fixing dinner, Mary melted some butter in a skillet, added minced green onions, garlic, spices and herbs, let everything heat up to a wonderful aroma, then slid in a pound of crawfish tails. I took out of the brightly-lit interior of our refrigerator a slim, cool wedge of gorgonzola, the best cheese in the world, this one the real gorgonzola, aged in the caves, its center creamy. I had tossed some greens in a bowl for a salad, was ready to drop some pale, wet scoops of the cheese atop, but couldn't resist lifting a knife tip's worth of the gorgonzola off the wedge, to my lips. The flavor was incredible. I walked over to the stove, to the slow sizzle of the crawfish. Mary and I hugged, one of those side-by-side, hip touching hugs of couples who have been together for a while. She looked at me, wanted to say something, I could tell, about the enduring power of love, how a familiar face can be a guiding star in the sky, as I myself was feeling in that hug, but her aphasia was giving her a little bit of trouble. It came out, charmingly, as, "I love you all the time."

We wait for these moments. The most precious, which we cannot hold.

We were in a supermarket a week or so ago, going through the check-out line.

As usually happens, there was one item that wouldn't scan properly, this time a case of Fancy Feast cat food, twenty-four cans to the case, each can three ounces. This is the cat food that, in its commercials, is served in what looks like a wide-mouthed wine glass (like cats really give a shit about how you serve their food, as long as you serve it. You could just dump it on the kitchen floor, and even if you didn't put a sprig of parsley next to it, they'd still gulp it down).

We buy Fancy Feast because Chirper, who's getting a little long in the few teeth he still has left, prefers it.

The checkout clerk picked up the phone by her register, called for a price check.

I went into that blank, zoned look we all get while we're waiting for life to start up again (did our ancestors ever get that look, detached from one's immediate surroundings, or is that something that started with the invention of waiting?). I cast about for something to think about, and remembered a talk show Mary and I had seen the other day, where a mother related, in heart-breaking detail, how her daughter had been in a car crash and had gone into a coma, lying in a hospital bed for months, staring up. The mother, confused maybe because she was so distraught in reliving what had happened, maybe confused because of the excitement of being on TV, told the interviewer, "The doctor warned me that even if she did come out of her coma, she'd be a vegetarian."

I snorted, remembering, then looked out again at the world and realized the check-out clerk and bag boy were glancing at me oddly (people usually don't suddenly laugh out loud while waiting for a price check).

"I was…I happened to think of something funny." Because I didn't want them to ask me what the funny thing was that I had been thinking of, because my social savvy told me that if I told them the funny thing concerned a girl in a coma from a car crash, I'd get even more weird looks, I quickly added, "So what do you sell more of? Cat food or dog food?"

That set them both to thinking. The bag boy opened his mouth, started to answer, but then checked himself, apparently realizing he hadn't fully considered my question. The check-out clerk started talking about the sale of dog food versus cat food in different communities where she had worked in a supermarket.

In the midst of all this, the price check was answered with the cost of the case of Fancy Feast.

But instead of the clerk adding that price to the register, so we could leave, she was still, sincerely, trying to come up with an accurate answer to my query.

Time passed.

I didn't know what to do. I tried, all the while politely smiling at the clerk, while she visibly weighed with different facial expressions the cat food versus dog food question, to think of some polite way to withdraw the question, but of course there's no way to do that. ("To be honest with you? I don't really care which food is more popular. Why would I? I was just saying something to fill up the silence.")

I didn't say that, they were being sincere, and sincerity is something always to be appreciated. So I just stood there, polite, waiting for them to come to a definitive answer. Farther down the line, a tall, fat man, the type that theatrically counts everyone's purchases in the fifteen items or less lane, glared at me. Behind his small eyes, I could clearly see two words: Fucking asshole.

Which, of course, is also quite sincere.

I mentioned in my previous Lately Mary's dad, Joe, fell outside his garage, breaking his elbow and hip.

The day after his fall, the surgeons at St. Joseph's in Milwaukee replaced his hip.

He's back home now, receiving outpatient physical therapy at a nearby facility a few times each week.

Surprisingly, his hip isn't the real problem now. It's his elbow. The doctors have taken the cast off his elbow already, but warned him not to lift anything more than five pounds for the next month or so (with his new, artificial hip, he was just told not to cross his legs). One doctor told him, If you're going down the stairs, start to fall, and reach out with your arm to grab onto the rail, you'll leave your hand and forearm attached to the rail while the rest of you continues to fall down the steps. Which is probably excellent medical advice, since it graphically conveys the seriousness of the situation.

Joe's been helped while he's home by his neighbor Ron, who is a true 'stand-out' guy. Ron checks in with Joe twice a day, takes him to his therapy, to the supermarket, and so forth.

Ron himself had polio as a child, and as a result can't lift his arms above a certain height.

Joe told us during our phone call to him Friday, February 20, that the light in his kitchen had burned out. This was a real problem, because to change the lightbulb, one of them had to get up on a stepladder, untwist the old bulb, twist in a new bulb.

Ron couldn't do it, because although he could climb the stepladder, he can't reach his arms over his head. Joe couldn't change the lightbulb, because although he can reach his arms over his head, it wasn't safe for him to get up on a stepladder.

"Gee, Joe. Get two more guys in that kitchen, and you've got a Polish joke."

We're both really pleased he's recovering so quickly. If you pray, please pray for his swift return to good health.

My short story, Cat Head, will be appearing in the next issue of Lunatic Chameleon, due out in May. It's a great magazine. Check it out.