The tree still had most of his needles, and although Carly had been at first against our adopting him, something forlorn and shaggy in his expression convinced her, as it had me, and we found ourselves with a second shot at Christmas for the New Year.
As to why we didn’t in the first place have a tree: Well, things get away.
Say you get too busy to paint, as Carly did, working with flowers all day instead of putting them on canvas, and maybe I stopped writing music because who’s listening anymore. Or maybe it’s more tired than busy because you go through the day unable to even focus on recreation (who ever thought we wouldn’t be able to sit through a film without flipping through a timeline or drifting to sleep?). Time just kind of runs through you, a bullet train, like you’ve got tunnels somebody drilled. After turkey doesn’t happen this year, you agree that presents aren’t what the season’s about, money being how it is, and if it’s the thought behind it, well, we’ve got plenty to think about as is, so let’s promise no gifts, and then the lights, the tinsel, the possibilities stay sealed under tape. Their moment in the Copernican Revolution passed over, the day dropped away, marked only by Kung-Pao chicken and rice in cardboard cartons.
Plus, what I did at the time for money—taking what I could season by season—was cutting and selling Christmas trees. Part time, at one of those pick-your-own-tree, take-a-photo-with-the-kids, saw-a-few-seconds-and-pass-it-to-the-help kind of places. I’d come home with trembling arms, stinking like a trucker: old sweat and new pine freshener. Even if we’d been in any mood for Christmas—and we were not—the last thing we wanted was a tree.
“You don’t understand,” the woman who’d come back to the tree farm had said, lowering her voice. “This thing is,” she looked over her shoulder, checking the tree roped to her car. “Well, possessed.”
Now, this tree—possessed, infested, or otherwise lacking Holiday Spirit—was a week old. Christmas had passed. Absolutely outside our return policy. No. We didn’t have a return policy. Trees are a gamble—anyone knows that. I don’t care if branches sag or drop needles or spit profanity and pea soup. You can’t bring them back.
Once more for absolute clarity: the entire Christmas tree enterprise rests upon the foundational principle that if you cut it, you live with it. Make it beautiful while you can.
And yet. She didn’t even want a refund. Just that we take it off her hands. I thought she was nuts, but free is free. So, with a shrug and an inkling that maybe, just maybe, this might prove some fun, I took home the last healthy-looking tree of the season. Maybe there was hope even in something already dying.
“You’ve finally done it,” Carly said, tottering to her feet, whiskey highball in hand.
“And it’s way after Christmas,” she hiccupped. “Shall we drop it from the roof on New Year’s Eve? If it doesn’t disintegrate by the end of the night.”
“It was free. I don’t think it looks too bad, really.”
Carly wobbled up to the tree. Bending her knees, she got down face-to-branch, bare and green.
“It is kind of pretty, I guess,” she said. When she stood, she spun perilously on her heel, and I thought for sure she was heading to bed. We’d stopped bickering about going to bed at the same time—or not—and just took our sleep where and when we could get it. And if that meant I was up half the night watching Mothra and Rodan, waking crotch soggy with spilled bourbon, that was my life. Our life.
As if she’d forgotten one last important thing before bed, Carly stopped and tipped the watery remains of her drink into the tree base I’d set up, then repeated her heel-spin maneuver.
“Ahh,” said the tree in the distinct timbre of latter day, drunken Orson Welles. “The Kentucky flavors.”
Carly’s foot stopped mid-step, her weight balanced miraculously on tiptoes like some frame-frozen gymnast. Weird, I thought. Oh sure, weird for Orson Welles or some remarkable facsimile to speak through a returned Christmas tree on the 27th of December. No doubt about it. But also weird that, for the first time in, Jesus, I didn’t know how long exactly, I felt this tingle between Carly and me that meant we were on exactly the same mental beat, as if that familiar voice had knotted a string between the paper cups of our minds, and our thoughts were just vibrating along the tightened cord. Reconnected by a voice neither of us could ever mistake.
We stayed up all night playing with Orson.
“I am not,” he’d say, “Orson Welles.”
“Say ‘Rosebud’ just once more, Orson,” Carly kept begging. Orson soon gave up his protests and repeated the line to our applause.
“How did you wind up as a tree, Orson?” I asked.
“How am I to know? How does one wind up as anything at all?”
A good point, Carly and I had to agree.
Neither of us had work the next day (yesterday a financial concern, now a strange opportunity), so we put on The Third Man and whipped up three old fashioneds. After a while Carly lit a joint, and she and I passed it back and forth, blowing smoke in Orson’s direction.
“Was it fun playing a con-man, Orson?” Carly asked him.
“You smoke trees as well as talk to them, hm?”
“Is he making fun of us?” I asked.
“Just a little plant solidarity, nothing meant by it,” he said and then giggled a long while. We sipped and poured Orson a refill.
“Hey, was it much fun playing a con-man, Orson?”
“I do think you’ve just asked me that,” Orson said and went on denying his Orson-ness, but I think we were just happy for the music of his voice and the warmth of mood between us.
We fell asleep on the couch. That fitful here-again-there-again kind of half-slumber that might as well function as teleportation, or a time machine, or as some slippery slope between possible lives.
When I woke up, I wasn’t sure who we were. Limbs tangled overgrowing one another like roots sunken into couch cushions. Grateful the hangover gods had spared us, Carly and I stretched stiff joints and cooked breakfast together. When she wasn’t looking, I whipped up a little dip for Carly’s scrambled eggs, mixing in some Thai chili sauce. Why hadn’t I tried something fun like this before? She’d often complained that our meals were getting dull, but I guess I thought I only knew one way. We ate together in warm silence.
After that, the day was wide open, and our place was void of the Christmas Spirit—aside, of course, from our needly guest. With our work schedules, all the Christmas trees and all the holly-jolly arrangements Carly had to make at the floral shop and not really needing to spend any more money, we’d put Christmas off indefinitely and skipped the whole decorating business.
But now we had Orson.
“You know I was thinking we—”
“Yeah, I was just going to say.”
We went down to the basement and dug up boxes of decorations. We shared the drudgery of cheer-making. The same aching legs trudging up rickety stairs, toes dodging exposed nails. The same dirty hands clapping, shaking loose puffs of dust. The same bundles of core muscles reawakening under the strain of unwieldy holiday boxes. Soon we looked like tussled chimney sweeps.
Our tiny living room was a Tetris game of packages, as if Santa had been too lazy to wrap. For a moment, all these dusty boxes looked to me—and I was afraid, to Carly, too—like ruins.
But time on our day off was ticking away, and we’d been given a second chance at the holiday, so we popped open boxes, took opposite ends of garlands and light strings, and working in tandem, wrapped our trimmings around Orson. While she was hanging a paintbrush ornament I’d given her, I caught Carly teasing her finger through some needles the way she’d often played with my hair. Orson chuckled. When he talked (“Could you please hang that one a little higher? Yes, thank you, that’s better.”), his branches rustled gently as if a small animal lurked within. One had the impression of a bristly, slightly unkempt beard.
“Isn’t he cute?” Carly said.
“I am right here, you know,” Orson said.
“Something’s missing though,” Carly said. “Ah, the top’s all bald. Can you get a chair from the kitchen?”
“No need for that,” I said, extending a hand.
“Don’t be silly. I’ll break my neck.”
“What? Don’t think I can do it anymore?”
“I think you can’t afford the bill when you drop me on my head.”
“We’re now beginning pre-boarding,” I said. “If you’re in row one, well, you’re our only passenger today.”
“Well, now I know you’re just planning to drop me to inherit my secret fortune.”
I leaned down, and Carly hoisted her legs into loops I made with my arms. My legs strained—it really had been a long time since we did anything so stupid—and I stumbled for a second (Carly: Hey now… hey now!) before stabilizing. There was that familiar weight. She had her arms around my neck, just about choking me (Pleading: Watch it with ACK the armbar!), and it seemed only to work because we didn’t need to face each other directly—just be alone with each other in a shared moment before Carly climbed my summit. We were locked together, which can be a curse. Orson might have been a curse, but he was also our chance for Re-Christmas. Stolen time and a speaking ghost. And curse or no, we were going to put our star on it.
We stayed in that piggyback ride point for a good while, partly because I feigned (partly) being out of breath. It felt like we were a lot younger and making up reasons to get close. Then, leaning down a bit, I let Carly climb up to my shoulders, the two of us teetering like some failed circus duo, and she stretched forward to fasten the slightly corroded copper star on top of our tree. Orson pleaded for a drink as we leaned into him, needles pricking and tickling the both of us.
When we had Orson all decked out in Christmas decorations—the lights, the tinsel, the boxes of ornaments bought, given to each other, received from parents—the result was goddamn religious. I mean, it gave you a real family feeling. It sounds stupid to say, but there was something living in that glow of Walmart lights, in the glitter of cheap metallic-painted ornaments on real, still-green branches that seemed to promise, maybe only in the hearts of American children, absolutely everything.
I felt that way right up until I noticed—had we knocked them loose while decorating?—a small dusting of Orson’s needles under his back branches.
Hours were few and pay slim at the tree farm, so I swung by a pawn shop to get rid of one of my effect pedals (So long, BD-2 Blues Driver, so long my guitar’s raspy voice). With the money from the pedal, I planned to pick up a bottle of nicer bourbon for Orson and us. But on my way out of the pawn shop, I spotted a VHS copy of Citizen Kane and decided cheap bourbon would have to do: there was a vow to break.
I snuck in to hide the tape, so Carly didn’t hear me coming in. This allowed me to see something I hadn’t in too long, long enough that it felt like the first time. Almost as if I were intruding on someone else’s life. For a moment, I didn’t recognize her. The light way she was gliding back and forth in front of her canvas. The close focus on details—crouching down, nose almost in the paint—as she gently perfected her private world. She’d tied her hair back to keep it out of the paint, but in her deep focus, she’d failed to notice the elastic loosening, barely clinging to the last inch of bound fibers. One wrong move and it all might bust apart and stick to the wet colors. I was afraid to breathe, that my presence would disturb something important.
“Welcome home,” Orson said just then, startling awake. “I was dreaming I’d grown rather parched.”
“Jesus,” Carly jolted. “I thought you were about to knife me in the back.”
I poked her with the neck of the bottle. “Now you’re on the rocks.”
“Now Carly dear,” Orson said, “do you think we should tell him about that thing from earlier? That… you know.” He chortled obscenely, needles rustling.
“Oh, I don’t know, he might be scandalized!” And they laughed until Carly had tears in the corners of her eyes. It occurred to me how long it’d been since we’d gotten out with friends—not that we could often afford going out. “Oh hey, hey, look at this,” she said, pulling me by the arm to her canvas. She’d painted a night scene—pools of dark gray and blue filling a rural Japanese village scene. A valley of oceanic greens and a patchwork of rice fields. There were little homes with thatched roofs in that praying-hand construction, and headlights stretched along a nearby highway—airy, glowing threads of yellow. Carly dipped a branch she was holding in fresh paint. “This was Orson’s idea, watch!” She whisked the needles over the canvas in an S-shape, as if casting a spell, leaving wispy trails of light over the village. “Fireflies,” she said. “Don’t you feel warmer just looking at them?”
It was true. She might well have stolen an easel’s worth of summer and sealed it within the drying paint. Had she always been this good? How could I have forgotten? What might have happened with her work if we’d not been debt-shackled, work-weary, and bored with our daily selves? Standing in front of her painting, Carly was smiling naturally—the kind of smile that comes only from a deep sense of satisfaction. From spontaneous creation. Something she had wanted to do for herself. Had something about our life prevented this kind of energy? Had we failed somehow to maintain it?
If you want a happy ending, well, as Orson Welles himself had once said, that depends on where you stop the story. Is that how our lives had to be, too?
I wondered about a time earlier in our story, about whether we should have stopped its plot soon after the peak. On the other side of the world, flickers of that time came at me as if rising out of Carly’s paint. Chirping crosswalks. Short, knobby trees on city streets. Classical jingles and mysterious dirge-like tones playing at train stations. Grilling fish and vegetables wafting across the neighborhood air. The sounds and smells that marked the distance, years ago, between my dormitory in Tokyo on a semester abroad and the one-room apartment Carly was given as part of an artist’s residency. She hadn’t even told me that she’d gotten it. Instead, she’d snuck around on Facebook, adding new friends from the international school until she convinced one of them to have me meet her at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya where, armed with a newly-finished piece of Japanese calligraphy (a beginner-level kanji : 木), Carly was waiting.
It was early summer. The cherry blossoms were long-gone. (“We’ll have to come back,” Carly had said, another hope that got away.) The temperature rose day by day, as did the feeling that the whole city had sprouted up through history just to couch our season together. If we’d share a plate of curry and a bottled beer at Matsuya, the sweat on our brows would promptly whisk away on a cool evening breeze. If one of us tried out a Japanese phrase as our guts clenched on the glassy elevator ride up Tokyo Tower, then a local child was sure to smile and respond, “Yes, it’s scary!” The kind of scary intertwined with joy and excitement. What lovers, faces dripping in sunscreen, could imagine long, cold winters sweeping from the future?
On the last night before Carly’s residency ended and we’d have to part for a month before my time abroad ended, we found a small, all-night indie theater in Yokohama. It was screening Citizen Kane on a big, scratchy screen with Japanese subtitles. Orson’s film had found us on the other side of the world. Though only half-seen, glancing at each other more than at Welles’s masterful cinematography, he offered us a last refuge before time was up.
What if, I wondered, peering into the scene Carly had created in my absence, that really had been our last hour? Or what if we’d run out of time—of real time—without realizing it? Cherry blossoms fall to the ground, trampled brown underfoot, within two weeks.
But maybe it wasn’t too late. Some gently reignited tenderness drew us to bed together that night, and I believe we both dreamed of flickering bugs in a deep, dark valley we might still visit.
After Carly’s shift at the florist the next evening, the last of the year, she came home with a gift, breaking our non-commercial Christmas promise. “Plant solidarity!” Carly said, handing me a pot of plants. Snapdragons, Petunias, and Dusty Miller, she explained. “A discount present, but it’s for you. I thought you might be sick of green all day.” Orson huffed.
The old VHS copy of Citizen Kane from the pawn shop sitting wrapped under one of Orson’s branches—right next to his third bourbon soda—suddenly felt like too small a gesture. Mere nostalgia. I guess we’d had enough to drink, and what the hell with Orson there and all, I ended up taking out the keyboard. Since Orson had been around, there’d been this tune building in my brain—right in the same place where that cord-like connection between me and Carly had vibrated. Some strange new frequency. I played around with this chord change and hummed this melody, and before I knew it, Orson was joining in, harmonizing. Carly listened to us, cheering and clapping—just out of rhythm, but in a way that gave the whole performance a chaotic energy. And when we finished, we toasted and lit up again, and we started improvising and playing all together. “Jingle Bells” rang through to “Deck the Halls” and landed on a delirious rendition of “Auld Lange Syne”, a tune we’d learned plays in Japanese cafes and stores when it’s time for the customers to leave. Then, with a collective sigh, we’d emptied the tank.
I gave Carly her present. She tore away the newspaper wrapping and held the tape in its worn cardboard skin. Her face was expressionless: not what a gift-giver wants to see.
“I keep telling you two,” Orson said, coughing a bit, maybe some bourbon up the wrong branch, “I am, no matter how you look at it, not this Orson Welles fellow.”
“No good?” I asked. Maybe I had assumed that memory meant as much to her as it did to me. Maybe reminding her of that time only made her resent that we’d never gone back. Never gone anywhere.
“No, I get it,” she said. “I was just thinking, for once I’m glad we only have that ancient VHS/DVD player. Cheers to never updating to Blu-ray.”
Carly jumped up and flipped on the TV to test the tape. News flickered on: the ball had already dropped in Hong Kong and Tokyo. It felt like we’d crawled into a crevice between years. It was warm and safe and happy, but not a place anyone could stay forever.
A few needles fell from Orson.
“You doing all right over there?” I asked him.
“Ahh, swell, fine,” he said with a shudder. “Pour me another of that Kentucky sauce you two fancy so much.”
But even after we’d emptied the bottle, the needles continued to fall. I emptied the next one, this time straight over the tree base. And had it not been for the hour, I’d have cleaned out the nearest liquor store, because what the hell was the money for, anyway?
“Hey man, hang in there,” I said.
“There there, Orson,” Carly said. “You need a bite to eat? I just learned a great new way to cook up eggs.”
“Oh drat, I have an unfortunate physicality,” Orson said, and the bourbon soaked as deep as it could go, forming a small trickle in the dirt, like a line of drool.
The needles fell neither all at once nor slowly enough that one could ignore the prickly layer of green assembling on our living room floor. I’d seen enough trees succumb suddenly to know what this meant. And as Orson’s rambling denials gave way to diatribes on French wine and the intricacies of advertisement syntax, Carly’s little encouragements to him, reassurances he’s all right, that we really liked him being here, they began to tremble and crack. An anxious tone rang over that taught string between us, and though maybe it was only in my head, I thought I heard chimes ring out at midnight. And then we were alone again.
In the morning, Orson was, save for the tinsel and ornaments we’d dressed him in, totally bare. Carly gently took the decorations down to re-box them, and then we returned the containers to dust once more. I swept up needles and twigs and loaded them into trash bags, sharp ends poking through plastic. But we weren’t ready to take the bag nor poor, bare Orson away. When the pieces were all gathered, Carly came up, and we held each other, longing for that voice.
We had the afternoon off. It was a New Year. We could paint or sing or smoke dope all day if we wanted. Carly made screwdrivers, I whipped up scrambled eggs with that Asian sauce, and we just sat, stalling as long as we could before crawling out of our crevice. The weather report said a blizzard was due that afternoon. Enough snow to bury us.
“Hey,” she said. “We can do this. It’ll sting more if we wait for it to get colder.”
We bundled up against the winter. First, we each took one of the bulging, prickly bags out to the curb, needles poking our legs as we walked. The cold wind made my eyes ache.
“How had there been so much of him?” I said.
“Too much bourbon.” And then we were laughing, too.
Next, we carried the tree out. No longer linked by Orson’s magic—but somehow still in sync—we set him gingerly against a small bush where he might have felt at home for a while. Carly lit a cigarette. A snowy mood had settled on our corner of the world. I really wished we could hear Orson’s voice, wished that line between me and Carly were as clear as it had been with him there. I wasn’t sure how to get that feeling back. The neighborhood trees creaked in the wind. Neither Carly nor I spoke. Then after a moment, she snapped a branch off Orson.
“Hey, what are you—” I said, but Carly had already set fire to it with her lighter. A thick, inky smoke slithered up into the gray.
“To warmer days,” she said, as if that little twig might light the way forward. She handed me the branch, the wind flecking off little embers in a steady stream. I knew this flame wouldn’t last through the winter. It wouldn’t last the minute. But while I could, I waved the burning twig through the air, its flame suddenly roaring bolder, defying the oncoming blizzard. I torched the winter air with color, tracing a secret pattern I knew only Carly would understand.
is from the American Midwest. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as Third Coast, Fourth Genre, Fourteen Hills, X-R-A-Y, and Hobart. Connect on Twitter: @jfsullivan4th