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Copyright © 2005 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2005.
what waterfalls we'll wash under
july 1, 2005
I work from home.
June 20, a Tuesday, a little before ten in the morning, my business phone rang.
I picked it up. "Rob Moore. May I help you?"
It was the guy I report to at my company.
"Rob, I hate having to make this call."
Well, as soon as someone says that, you know what's coming. It's like someone saying, "I have bad news about Aunt Clare." The bad news probably isn't that she misplaced her meatloaf recipe.
I looked over at Mary, who was sitting on the edge of the bed.
He got right to the point. The company I work for had been acquired by a much larger company, which had acquired several other companies that do the same thing my company does. Because of the duplication from all these acquisitions, the parent company had decided to eliminate the department I work in. I was losing my job.
I was being fired.
So was virtually everyone else in the department, including, probably, my manager, the guy on the other end of the line. He confided he felt he was being kept on temporarily just long enough to take care of the unpleasant task of letting everyone else go, after which he suspected he'd be fired himself (there's no point in keeping a manager who no longer has anyone to manage).
I told him how much I appreciated working with him, which I had, he's a really decent guy, asked a few practical questions about severance pay, the five filing cabinets in my garage filled with company records, the office equipment in my home, but it was the type of call both people want to end, understandably.
While I was talking to him, I glanced at Mary.
She looked at me, suspecting something was wrong.
I wanted to silently communicate to her I had been fired. Wasn't sure how to do it. I raised my right hand, put the index finger horizontal, drew it in a quick gesture across my Adam's apple.
The corners of her mouth went down, sad. She tilted her head to one side.
I mentioned last month the tallest tree at the rear of our property, an elm about fifty feet high, which I love looking up into, Mary and me sitting under it, drinking a beer at the end of the day, had a large limb, almost a second trunk, starting twenty feet up, that was splitting away from the main trunk.
What caused the split I don't know. It could have been lightening, a particularly strong wind, slow rot at the union.
This heavy limb was hanging directly over the power lines leading across our back yard into our home. Because of the split, because of gravity, the limb was lowering a little bit more each day towards the power lines, to where it was almost resting atop the lines.
Once the limb fell off the tree, it'd bring down our electricity, phone, cable.
So it was a cause for concern.
The first few days after we noticed the split, we did nothing, except feel depressed. Then we realized we had to take action.
I called the electric company, told them there was this huge limb hanging over their power line, lowering each day. As soon as the customer service representative realized the limb was on my property she said, "That's not something TXU can help you with. If it were a pole to pole issue, we'd cut down the limb. But because the line is a pole to house issue, you need to resolve it.. Try calling your town hall."
Which I did. "If it were a limb that was on the public side of your property line, we could send a crew out. But since the limb is over your own property, you need to call TXU. They'll take care of it for you."
I pulled out the yellow pages, looked under Tree Services, called the guy with the biggest ad (a half page).
I got his voice mail.
"Hello, this is so-and-so with such-and-such. Please leave your name and number, and I'll get back to you lickety-split."
First of all, I didn't like the flippancy of the "lickety-split". Maybe it's me. But if I'm going to pay someone a lot of money, I want them to be serious. At least as serious as I am about my problem, and to be honest, I would prefer them to be even more serious than I am. I can joke about the situation, but they can't. Because it's my wallet that's open.
Secondly, my experience in life is that if someone brags about how soon they're going to get back to you, chances are you're in for a long wait. People who are conscientious about calling you back in a timely manner just say something like, "Let me check with my guy in the field." Boom, twenty minutes later, my phone is ringing.
So anyway, this particular guy, with the big ad in the yellow pages, didn't call me back that day. Didn't call me back the next day, a Saturday, or Sunday. Or Monday. I guess he was licking some other splits. Tuesday, I see our home phone answering machine light is blinking red. Sure enough, it's this shithead, leaving a message, asking me in a really jovial voice to give him a call.
Which I didn't, because the day before, Monday, I called a guy with a much smaller listing in the yellow pages, one of those display ads an inch high.
Not only did I immediately get through to him, but two hours later, he was on our property, walking with us to the elm. And he was professional. He didn't try to be a comedian. I don't want a comedian, because George Carlin can make me laugh, but he can't cut down a big fucking tree limb.
The three of us stood side-by-side while he visually surveyed where the limb went across our yard, looking down at his shoes to make sure he wasn't standing near a fire ant mound. The limb itself was probably thirty or forty feet long, with lots of side branches.
Finally, he pulled out a business card, flipped it over, wrote on the back of the card with a ball point pen, card bending under his handwriting.
When he was finished, he handed the card sideways to me.
The figure he wrote down was three hundred and fifty dollars.
He took the card back, added twenty-eight dollars.
Tax? On cutting down a tree limb?
But I didn't care. I just wanted the limb removed. (This was before I lost my job.)
So I agreed to the price.
"Because the limb is hanging over your power lines, we'll give the job a priority."
Which he did. Our phone rang later that evening, him saying he'd have a crew out there at noon the next day.
Sure enough, at noon they showed up. Two big yellow trucks, eight guys.
The supervisor called me from his cell phone a few minutes before his arrival to say his crew planned to eat lunch first, then take care of my tree.
He rang our front doorbell when he got there, to let us know they'd arrived.
I went out onto the hot front lawn with him, to walk him around back, show him which limb it was.
As we headed towards the gate into the backyard, I saw seven guys sitting on my neighbor Jim's lawn, under the dark shade of his live oak, eating their lunch from small paper bags. The scene reminded me of photographs from the Great Depression.
After about twenty minutes, the men showed up in our backyard, weird to see so many strangers there, drifting towards the tree.
There was a lot of head craning, following the line of the limb across the rear of the yard.
Mary and I sat inside our breakfast nook with glasses of ice water, ringside seats. It's fascinating to watch something get done. Neither of us had ever before seen a large limb twenty feet off the ground get removed.
After much looking up, jokes and comments going around in Spanish, the tallest of the men threw an incredibly thick rope up over the limb, doling out length so the free end dangled down to grasping distance. He twisted the thickness of the rope this way and that, creating knots. Without even pulling on the rope to make sure it was secure, he started walking sideways up the elm, perpendicular to its trunk, tiny chainsaw swinging off his belt.
Once he was on the limb, one of the workers below, on solid ground, tossed up to him another ridiculously thick rope.
He climbed further up into the tree, disappearing behind the green leaves.
Mary and I leaned forward, trying to discern where he was.
He reappeared far, far up in the elm, elbows lifting left, right, evidently putting some more knots in, then tossed the free end of the rope down, where it bounced ten feet off the ground.
He disappeared into the green leaves again, re-emerging a minute later on the bad limb.
Holding onto the rope above him, and secured around the waist by the other rope wrapped around the elm's trunk, he ventured out across the bad limb's length, to the edge of the property line. Reached down, lifted the little chainsaw off his belt, pulled the cord to get the teeth revolving, started sawing through the limb.
The branches fell one after another, each section ten feet long, springy with leaves.
Now we understood why there were so many men in the crew.
After a branch would fall, a guy would race over to it, looking up to make sure he wasn't under the next branch coming down, get in the middle of the branch, hoist it, march through our garden towards the gate.
It was all remarkably efficient.
As we watched, four guys walked across our backyard carrying four huge branches, each about ten feet long, the diminutive size of the workers, in comparison with the giant size of the fallen branches, making them look like ants at a picnic sneaking off with the broccoli.
The guy up in the tree worked his way backwards towards the trunk of the elm, the sections getting shorter, their diameter thicker.
As the weight of each of these short, heavy limb sections fell, each the size of a bongo drum, their impact landing sounded like a small bomb going off.
We walked to the front of our home, looking out the windows in the dining room.
The crew at the front curb of our property had a huge limb-mulching machine turned on. They'd angle a ten foot branch into the wide front of the mulcher, taller than them, then push it in a foot. The machinery took over, sucking the length of the branch in, the mulcher's narrower end almost instantaneously spitting green into a big metal bin at the back of the truck.
The whole operation took about forty-five minutes.
After the limb was completely thrown down onto the ground, hauled away, the guy up in the tree hung from ropes twenty feet up, in a sitting position, in front of where the split had occurred, shaking a can, spraying black onto the split, sealing it.
Once he was finished, he lowered himself to the ground, pulled down all the thick ropes in our tree, coiling them on the dirt. Walked away, lit a cigarette.
The rest of the crew came through with rakes and brooms, cleaning up all the miscellaneous twigs and leaves.
An interesting thing to me about all this is that the tree company owner told me the foreman would present me with a sealed envelope. I was to open the envelope, which would contain my invoice. I should then write a check for the amount on the invoice, put the check in a smaller envelope within the first envelope, seal the envelope, give it back to the foreman.
So in other words, the guys doing the actual work had no idea what the owner was charging for their services.
That same week the huge limb came down, I met with my next door neighbor Jim in his front yard, about the privacy fence that runs between our properties in back.
The fence was in such a decrepit state, slats falling off, it needed to be replaced.
The first Saturday, we started out by tearing down the existing fence.
Over the course of the fifteen years the fence had stood, what with rain, long hot summers, termites in the ground gradually eating their way up into the vertical slats, all we had to do to bring the fence down was travel its length, banging hammers against the wood, slats popping out like dragon teeth.
The fence was nailed to posts eight feet apart. We wanted to replace these posts as well, since chances were they didn't have too many years left.
Unfortunately, each post was buried two and a half feet into the ground, fifteen years ago, and over the course of that decade and a half, the dirt around the posts had hardened like concrete.
So we couldn't just squat, hug one, yank it up out of the ground. We had to dig them out.
Jim started at the first post, me at the second.
A shovel wouldn't work, because the ground in this area of Texas is hard clay, full of large white rocks.
We used hand spades, getting down on our knees in the dirt, forcing the pointed edge of the spade an inch or two into the clay, hurling the dirt away, forcing the edge back in again.
Whenever one or the other of us scraped dirt away from the hard, uneven top of a buried rock, we'd get up, grab the hoe, a long, solid shaft of metal that looks like a javelin, lift it as high as we could, aim it at the rock in the shallow hole, thrust it down, shoulders shaking at the impact.
The hoe never broke the rock on the first downwards thrust, or the fifth.
By late morning, it was ninety-nine degrees.
We were covered in dirt and sweat.
I looked down the long line of posts we hadn't even got to yet.
I managed to work the post I had been digging around out of the hole, but now I had to go back and enlarge that hole.
Two and a half feet doesn't sound that deep, but when you're lying flat on the ground, right shoulder dipped into the top of a hole, right hand stabbing down into the hard clay near the bottom of the hole, trying to scrape the sides of the hole, believe me, two and a half feet is fucking deep.
Quite a few times, one or the other of us would stand up, grab one of the replacement posts, certain by now our hole was deep enough, drop the post into the hole, but the top of the post would still rise six inches above the white cotton string we had stretched down the line of posts as a height guide.
I'd pull the post out again, get back down on the ground, dig another half hour, feeling like I was reaching all the way down to the center of the earth, hoist the new post back in the hole, and damn if that post top wasn't still four inches above the string.
By the time we quit for the day, we had three new posts in place, fresh concrete poured around their buried bases.
Huge, watery blister across my right palm.
So I called up the contractor who rehung the backyard gate for Mary and me, asked him to come out and give an estimate on how much it would cost for one of his crew to dig out the remaining posts for us.
One hundred and eighty dollars. "When can he show up?"
A few days later, a real friendly guy about eighteen, rail thin, rang our doorbell. I shook his hand, led him around back, showed him which posts to dig out.
He asked where our garden hose was, so he could drink from it and pour its water over his head while he worked.
It took him a couple of hours, but he got the job done.
That's a nice thing about youth; that's a nice thing about money.
The back-breaking work was done. All we had to do now was screw in the stringers (the horizontal beams of wood, three to a section, that would support the posts), then screw in the hundreds of six-foot slats that make up the fence.
Although this part of the job was relatively easy, it would take quite a few Saturdays. Mary and I didn't really want to spend that much time apart (Mary's allergic to the preservative put in the wood, so couldn't participate in the fence-building, and since her stroke, it's hard for her to be by herself for any length of time-she can't read, she can't drive.)
So the same week the huge limb came down, I met with Jim in his front yard to discuss a proposal.
I explained the situation.
"I had that contractor I use come out and give me an estimate of how much it would cost for one of his guys to build the fence for us. Five hundred minimum, six hundred maximum. Here's my proposal. I pay for getting the fence built, we split the cost on materials."
Jim, who's a great neighbor, and understood the situation, agreed.
The next evening, I guess after having thought it over, Jim suggested a revised proposal. He would get his children and grandchildren to build the fence. In exchange, I would pay all the costs of the remaining materials.
I thought about it. We'd both benefit. We'd both save money. Jim wouldn't have to pay anything; I'd be paying about four hundred dollars less in labor costs.
We shook on it.
His children, grandchildren, built a really good fence.
Good fences makes good neighbors.
The day I was fired, I woke up at about one o'clock that night, as I normally do.
I haven't slept straight through a night in years.
(There's an interesting new book out, I forget its title, the title is something meant to sound definitive, like, "Night", but anyway, I read a review of it, either in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. Essentially, the book surveys how our attitude towards night has changed over the centuries. The author says that before electricity, before gas lamps, when the world, after the sun went down, would slowly revolve into pitch blackness, there was a concept of "the first sleep" and "the second sleep". People would go to sleep once it got dark, sleep until midnight. Around midnight, they'd wake up, refreshed, do household chores by candlelight until two or three in the morning, then again retire to bed for the second sleep, which would last until the sun came up. In other words, the concept of falling asleep at nine or ten and sleeping straight through until the next morning is a modern concept, and not really the way our internal clocks work. Because the sleep cycles were shorter, two moderate sessions rather than one long session, people tended to remember their dreams more. The keeping of dream journals, recording all the colors and illogical scenes and sentences, was far more prevalent before electricity.)
So anyway, I woke up, looked at the red digital readout from the little alarm clock on my bedside table, 12:55 or 1:19, whatever.
I lay awake on my back, thinking about this and that, Mary slumbering beside me, and it was a full ten minutes before it occurred to me, Oh, that's right! I lost my job today!
For the first time in fifteen years, I have to look for a job. And it has to be a job where I can continue to work from home, to take care of Mary.
So it's a scary time right now, how could it not be, losing your job, but it's not that scary. We've saved up a nest egg in anticipation of this happening (I always figured I wouldn't be able to keep my present job until I turned sixty-five, not with the way American business is these days.)
Mary and I are about to be cast adrift, pushed off from one island, heading out towards the aquamarine horizon. Who knows what other islands are out there? What waterfalls we'll wash under?
My short story, Pushing Down the Tombstones, will be in the next issue (Number 30) of the Irish magazine, Albedo One, coming out this August. The issue will be launched at the 63rd WorldCon in Glasgow, Scotland, and will also be available through the usual venues.