Artificial Tree

Holly bit the head off a snowman cookie as she watched her husband struggle to get a coffin-sized box up their basement stairs. His labored breathing came in uneven huffs. Sweat beads lined his forehead. It confused her how someone so thin could be so out of shape. The box dented the drywall. “Damn it,” he said, rubbing his hands through his thick hair before resting those good-sized hands on his thirty-two-inch waist. He dragged the box into the family room.

Holly pushed her right hand out of her sleeve and grabbed another cookie, poking the fat under her chin as she chewed. Over the years she’d received the makeshift compliment of “curvy” or “voluptuous,” although her breasts needed an exacting bra to make her feel feminine, as they’d lain flat since she could remember. Her shoulders were broader than her narrow hips, hips that broadcast her stomach yo-yoing in size. But it was her hands that were her least favorite physical attribute. Scott was six foot with those good-sized hands, but her fingers still stretched past his. In high school, after the girls’ basketball team won states her junior year, she dipped those hands in blue paint and pressed them against a white banner that was hung in her high school gymnasium. During the banner hanging ceremony, a student yelled, “Who’s number fifty-two? Big Foot’s cousin? Big Hands? My God, those are the biggest hands I’ve ever seen!” Her peers began shouting: “We want Big Hands. We want Big Hands.” Holly’s teammates coaxed her into standing and the students went into a frenzy. Since then, she’d made sure to wear a larger shirt size, hiding those hands behind the cuff.

Scott inspected the wall. He rubbed the dent as if his touch would magically fix the dent. Holly bit into another cookie. She looked at the row of decapitated snowmen and smiled, thinking she’d finally achieved portion control.

“If you want a drink, have a drink,” he said.

“I’m fine.”

“Tell that to the snowmen you’re executing.”

“I can’t. I ate their ears.” She tried to be funny, maybe even charming, but her words came out terse.

Scott had been sober two years. Holly had been with him for three. They met in an elevator at work. The doors opened. He had a flask to his mouth. He smiled. “I’m Irish,” he said. “Oh,” she said, “that’s a relief. I thought you were an alcoholic.” He laughed, but she wasn’t trying to be funny, and when he realized this, he tucked the flask back into his suit pocket. There was something about the way he half-grinned about his sad reality that reminded her of Graham Halladay, her college boyfriend. She pushed the STOP button. His confusion was trumped by his loss of balance. She caught him with her big hands and smoothed his hair over and shook his pant legs to smooth the wrinkles. It wasn’t until she gave him a breath mint that he asked, “Why?” She shrugged and gave the elevator back its power. After four months of small talk and fun e-mail exchanges and listening to Scott’s relationship issues, he took her hand on a spring day and said he wanted to get away from temptation, and asked her to go camping with him. For some reason she lied and said she’d never gone camping. In college, she’d lost her virginity to Graham Halladay in Hocking Hills her sophomore year. They huddled together in one sleeping bag, listening to the night rain sprinkle against the tent. Sensing something life-changing was about to happen, she tucked her hands into her pajama sleeves.

She tucked her hands into the pajama sleeves and walked to the other room. There was a mess of synthetic pines ironed flat in the box. Scott scratched his head. The branches were supposed to be color-coordinated, but the manufacturer hadn’t labeled them.

“Take it back. It’s defective,” she said.

He took out a limb, but his inspection led to confusion. “This is our first Christmas as a married couple. I will figure it out.”

Holly pulled wine from the bottom cabinet. She unscrewed the cork, musing how she’d discovered Sea Smoke. A man at happy hour had recommended it. His nose had been long and pointy and curled down like a talon. She thought how she had said “I’m married” to the man, as if it were a surprise to her. She sipped the wine and sat down next to Scott as he began to methodically match up limbs. Holly wished they’d made plans to go somewhere for the holidays. Lake Tahoe maybe. They could ski and gamble. They could get dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant and allow their independent musings to act as romantic silences. Or, they could rent a cabin in Vermont on the hopes of getting snowed in. They could chop down a tree for their lodge. They could make love as forming snowdrift crept up the window, the fresh scent of pine perfuming the room, their bodies keeping one another warm. She kept the fantasy to herself as she kept disappearing to drink the wine until it was all gone.

#

“Now, that’s a good-looking tree,” Scott said. “By the time it’s decorated and we spray it with pine scent, it might as well be from our own backyard.” Scott kissed Holly, and then opened a few boxes labeled “ornaments”—one was in his writing, and the other was in hers.

“Maybe we should just decorate a tree in the backyard,” she said, watching as Scott hung her favorite ornament—an antique pink bell given to her by her grandmother.

“Are you joking? I can never tell.”

She kept quiet, watching him decorate. The color scheme created no pattern, no purpose—the red balls were all bunched together. It looked as if a virus were collecting.

She stood to correct him, but the wine prevented her. She didn’t drink much anymore, and when she did, she wished she hadn’t. Scott hummed to Harry Connick’s version of “Little Drummer Boy”, as he hung an ornament she didn’t recognize—a starfish with “Duck Island” written on it in red cursive. She wondered how many other women had watched Scott decorate a tree. He had been sleeping with an intern—Tara “Big Tits” something—when Holly met him in that elevator. Tara was too pretty for words and Holly knew for a fact that she still messaged him on Facebook from time to time. Had she been around long enough to see him decorate a tree?

“Do you ever notice people looking at us when we go out?” she asked.

He held up a stocking made of yarn, something she made as a child, and smiled at it. “What?”

“When we go out to dinner…do you ever notice people looking at us?”

“What do you mean, ‘looking at us?'”

“Exactly what I mean. Looking? Staring?”

“You serious?”

“Forget it.”

She wanted to tell him how she’d heard people at work respond once the engagement had been announced. “Maybe he’s legally blind,” an underwriter had said. An analyst called Scott “brave for sleeping with that.” And, the engagement didn’t stop women in the office from openly flirting with Scott, pushing their cleavage in his face, touching his arm—all in front of her. Scott seemed oblivious to it all.

Carbon, their cat, came out from hiding. Holly snapped her fingers, but Carbon ignored her and rubbed against the tree’s box, before jumping into the tree.

“Carbon’s found a new home,” he said.

The tree shook as Carbon climbed up it. Scott had named her Carbon, short for Carbon-Copy. She was a tortoise, with the left side of her nose pink, a virtual physical facsimile of Holly’s cat in college, Piper. Graham Halladay had given Piper to Holly when his landlord said he couldn’t have a cat in his apartment. Scott knew about Graham, but he didn’t know Graham had given Holly the cat, only that Piper had had to be put down a few weeks after they’d started dating.

Carbon climbed and the pink antique bell Holly’s grandmother had given her jingled until it hit the floor. Sparkling pink glass spread out in microscopic shards, embedding into the carpet. “Bad kitty!” Holly reached into the tree, the plastic needles scraping against her skin, and yanked out the cat. Carbon hissed.

Holly picked up the bell fragments. One pinched her skin, rooting in her palm like a splinter. When she was young, she had grabbed the Spanish moss that dangled off the oak trees at Boone Plantation in Charleston. The unseen chiggers that lived in the epiphyte had burrowed into her palm and attacked, causing her to develop a painful itching. She had a scar from where the chiggers had implanted themselves, but as her big hands grew, the scar became almost imperceptible. As the palm absorbed the pink shard from the bell, the phantom chigger scar began to itch. She pulled out the shard. Blood oozed.

“Bad Carbon. Bad kitty.” Scott chased Carbon out of the room. When he came back he massaged her shoulders. “Ah. Honey. Your grandmother’s bell. I’m so sorry.”

“We need to get rid of that cat. She’s not Piper.” She fought off tears. “Piper was special. Carbon might as well be one of those cats rummaging around Old San Juan with its ear clipped.” The thought of referencing the one vacation they had taken again made her wonder where else Scott had vacationed and with whom. “I need a Band-Aid.”

“The cut’s not that bad. Just run it under the faucet,” he said.

“Can you make sure the ornaments are more secure? We can’t have all of them falling off.” She stared at the cat thinking of Piper and how Piper loved to climb the Christmas tree too. Scott shook his head and jounced a limb. Three more fell. “Damn it,” he said. “I’ll fix it.”

Holly wrapped the Band-Aid around her finger. She tried to pick up Carbon, but the cat sprinted away to rub against Scott’s legs, and then jumped back into the tree. Using a bottom branch as a springboard, Carbon jumped. The branch wilted. “Shit,” they both said. Scott slid under the tree like a mechanic.

“A piece of plastic broke off. Carbon’s weight must have been too much.” Scott held out the piece of plastic. “I’ll super-glue it tomorrow. It’ll be good as new.”

Holly gave the wilted limb a cursory glance. She grinned. “Now we can decorate a tree in the yard.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just reminding you of what you said. This tree is now clearly broken.”

“Very funny. In the meantime…” He spun the tree around to hide the hole. More ornaments fell. The broken branch landed in the corner of the wall. He grabbed the fallen limb and fanned Holly with the branch. Holly ignored this and began picking up ornaments.

Sinatra’s version of “Silver Bells” played.

“What’s your favorite Christmas song?” she asked.

“What?”

“Your favorite Christmas song. What is it?”

“I don’t know,” he said, snapping his fingers at Carbon. She sauntered to him and he stroked her back. “I like that one by Nat King Cole. ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ What’s that called?”

“The Christmas Song.”

“Really? That’s ‘The Christmas Song?’ Huh? I never knew that.” He picked up a ceramic wave with “Nassau” written on it. She’d never been to the Bahamas, but Scott had—probably with an ex. They probably fucked on the beach. “What’s yours?” He refastened the ornament using a double loop.

“You don’t know?” she said, wondering why the two of them had never bought an ornament when they were in Puerto Rico. He shrugged. She sneered. Graham Halladay would’ve said “Let It Snow,” and then he would’ve sung a verse mimicking Dean Martin, her favorite rendition.

The cat jumped to a branch. A red ball with a painted moose on it dressed as Santa rolled to her foot.

“Who were you with in 2011?” she asked, inspecting its date. Scott shrugged. This irritated her. “I know who I was with in 2011.”

“Let me guess. Graham Halladay, right? Just because I was with more people than you doesn’t mean I’m not jealous of what you had with him.”

She pointed at the broken antique bell.

“My grandmother gave me that bell seven years ago. It was her last Christmas. She wanted me to have it. I always helped her decorate her tree. I’ve been hanging it on Christmas trees since I was a little girl.”

He crossed to the opposite side of the room and sat down on the red love seat.

“Why do you always get weird about my past? The half of it I don’t even remember. Just a blur of shame. So, maybe I don’t want to remember 2011.” He walked to her and took the moose ornament from her hand. “This is not a big deal. This,” he said, shaking the ornament like a rattle, “doesn’t have to be on the tree. I just thought.” He paused. “Never mind.”

She looked at the Band-Aid. Blood had seeped through.

“What was her name? Moose girl?” Holly asked.

“Does it matter?”

She shrugged.

“Why did you break up with Graham?” he asked. “You’ve never told me.”

There had been a reason she’d broken up with Graham, but she couldn’t remember it, not anymore. He gave her back the moose ornament. “Her name was Sara White.”

She thought hearing the name would help, but it didn’t. Not even a little bit. She wrapped the moose ornament’s wire hook twice around the limb. Then, she hung the lighthouse ornament they’d bought at Marble Head next to the moose.

“I’m sorry. I drank more than I should have. I’m going to bed.”

As she headed for the steps, she felt him staring at her, but she kept her eyes forward, eyeing a picture of them on their wedding day. In the background of the picture was Scott’s sister, her eyes locked on Scott, beaming with happiness and relief.

#

When Holly awoke, Scott’s arm was wrapped around her waist, as he spooned against her. The tree’s lights glimmered off the hallway wall in colored patches. She reached down to pet Carbon, but she wasn’t there. An ornament fell. She swung her feet over the edge of the bed and stared at the blues and greens and reds on the wall. Scott hated colored lights, but she liked them. She stood. Her head throbbed. She wanted chocolate.

She sat in her car outside a United Dairy Farmers and stared at the chocolate—something she’d given up in solidarity when Scott began his sobriety. She tore at the first of three Dove chocolate bars. It was delicious. So was the second. Halfway through her third bar, she looked at a lit-up pine tree out front of the UDF. She set the candy bar in the cup holder and got out.

The pine stood about six feet. In college she had gone with her roommate Megan to a farm to cut down their own tree for Christmas. She knew of the farm because that was where Graham had gotten Piper. The farmer had pointed out towards the ocean of pines that had seemed to stretch forever and said the perfect one was out there, somewhere in the mix, waiting to be taken home.

The farmer’s name was Hagan McCoy. He was tall and thin with the biggest hands she’d ever seen. “Got to get my gloves custom-made,” he’d said, after noticing Holly staring at his grip on the axe’s handle. He’d winked and put that big hand on hers and slid it up to the top of the axe. “This’ll give you control,” he’d said. “If you go off all willy-nilly you could come down at an unfriendly angle and hurt the tree. Now go on. Give me a few practice swings.”

Holly had cut at the air a few times. Hagan McCoy had brought up her right shoulder a bit. He’d smelled of winter air and pine. He’d told her to swing again. After approving of her technique, he’d sent the twenty-one-year-old girls into the landscape. It had been like walking into a portrait of Maine. “Just remember, you cut it down, you drag it back. So, size up accordingly.”

They’d found a six-foot pine about a hundred yards into the forest—perfect for their eight-foot ceiling, leaving just enough room for the star. Megan had stood back and cheered Holly on as she focused on the trunk. After her fifth swing, it’d tipped over.

“Damn,” Holly had said.

“What? Is there a family of birds in there or something?” Megan had said.

“I forgot to yell timber.”

On the way back the girls had sung Christmas carols and made plans to go to the department store in town to buy decorations and hot cocoa and gingerbread cookies. Hagan McCoy had said he’d accept a tip, but no payment for the tree because one couldn’t put a price on happiness. Holly had kissed his cheek and said thank you. Hagan had extended his big hand, and as it swallowed up Holly’s, he’d told her that was the best tip he’d ever got. She hadn’t let him pull away, wishing her hand always felt as protected as it did nestled in the farmer’s mitt.

“Better give me that back,” he’d said, with a wink, “the missus is scrappier than she looks.”

“She’d fight for you?”

“She’d better.”

Holly had let go.

That night, Megan had had a family emergency and had to go home. It was the first tree Holly had ever decorated by herself. She’d thought of calling Graham—he had only been five minutes away—but she thought of the farmer and the way he had spoken of his wife and just couldn’t bring herself to pick up her phone. That New Year Graham had proposed as they’d stood on a rooftop in Wrigleyville. She had stared at the darkened Cubs’ scoreboard as the thump of the music beat from the party below. As the diamond had shimmered in the moonlight, she’d thought about the baseball diamond and then looked at the scoreboard and wondered if Wrigley Field was going to be renovated, and if it were, if it would make the ballpark feel less historic. These were the things she’d thought about as she’d stared at the scoreboard and said yes.

#

More ornaments had fallen. She knelt down to refasten a red ball, but stopped, and instead, she boxed up the ornaments and the colored lights and carried them outside, leaving only the moose and the wave and the starfish on the tree. She ran an orange extension cord from the side of the house to a six-foot pine in the backyard. She pushed the lights through the pine. Afterwards, as she wedged the broken pink bell between some branches, it began to snow big, soft flakes. A swirl of sparkling dots glistened in the neighbors’ floodlights. She stuck out her tongue and caught one.

The gutter on the right side creaked against the house. She shoved her hands in her pocket and grimaced. She’d forgotten about her cut and the action had ripped off the Band-Aid. It looked healed, but when she pinched the wound, a small drop of blood bloomed. Another chilling wind charged, again making the gutter creak. She breathed into her hands, wishing she’d bought those gloves, even if they were in the men’s section. She tucked her hands in her sleeves and wondered if it’d snow through the night. If it did, Scott would want to hold hands while making snow angels in the morning.
The back porch light came on. Scott stood in his bathrobe. He waved to her using the artificial branch that had broken earlier.

“You’re crazy, you know that! I love it!” He put his hand out, then looked up, and laughed. “It’s snowing? Awesome! Hold on. Let me get my boots.”

He disappeared into their house. The windows reflected the outside tree. She turned around. The lighthouse ornament wasn’t facing forward. She fixed it. The back door shut, and as soft footsteps moved towards her, she pushed her hands out of her sleeves.

Josh Penzone earned his Master’s in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. His work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Critical Pass Review, FICTION Silicon Valley, Sediment Literary-Arts Journal, and Chantwood Magazine. His short story “The Whitings” was published as a single title by ELJ Publications and is available on Amazon. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart and lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter, where he teaches high school.

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