by Nathan Alling Long
I’d seen Trip at the school bus stop for years, but hadn’t ever talked to him. Not more than a hello. He lived on a farm down the road, and it wasn’t until the summer I turned fifteen, just as school was ending that year, that his dad came over and asked if I wanted to work with them baling hay.
I said yes, mostly to avoid working around our own farm. My parents bought this land when I was ten, and Dad and I had spent summers rewiring the house, turning the pantry into a bathroom, clearing the land. Dad raised two steers a year and tilled a half acre, which he called “the field.” But he wasn’t a real farmer, only an insurance salesman with a gentleman’s farm.
A few days working with Trip and his dad that summer, I understood the difference. This was their life. They lived and breathed it.
Trip was a year younger than I was, though looked more like he was eleven or twelve, not really a teenager at all. He was scrawny, but strong, with an overbite and a long bony face. His hair was shaggy—this was the late ’70s—and the way it hung over his eyes, the way his white, white teeth hung from the pink of his upper gums when he laughed, made him look like a wild horse in the field.
We had nothing in common. My other friends and I talked about banned books, helped each other study for Chemistry exams, made fun of rednecks in school. Trip and his dad didn’t need books or schooling, although Trip was still forced to go. Around them, nothing I normally said to my friends mattered much. I didn’t have to think. I just concentrated on the work at hand. I felt the heat of the sun and the coolness of the breeze, and the taste of the cold water from the thermos that rested on the back of the tractor. I breathed in deep the sweet pungent smell of the dried grasses and slowly felt something opening up inside me, something I wanted to guard from my parents and my friends, something so uncomplicated, it seemed dangerous.
With my dad, working the land felt violent, like he was trying to force it to do what he wanted. Over the years we’d lived there, we cut down one hundred and seventeen trees. I kept track of each one in a little book I kept under the drawer of my bedside table.
I remember crying when we felled our first tree, a few weeks after we bought the farm, back when I was ten. Maybe it was the splintering noise of the chainsaw, or how Dad pressed the blade into the trunk so forcefully, or the way the branches stretched out as they dropped to the ground, like they were reaching for something they’d never grasp again. All I remember was Dad scowling when he saw my face, asking me why I was upset, telling me that I didn’t have to worry—trees grew back.
“Besides,” he said, “this one is an Ailanthus, tree of heaven. They’re weeds.”
Within a week of working for Trip’s dad, Trip and I started hanging out. My friends were busy working their first jobs at the mall, and Trip was the only boy around my age who lived nearby. We didn’t talk much, just ran through the woods, climbed the cliffs overlooking his farm, and waded into the stream that ran between our properties. The only thing we didn’t do was eat at each other’s houses. It seemed we both knew that our families were too different, that whatever we had in common, we only had alone.
One day in early August, we found a tall thicket at the bottom of the slope below our house. Trip said we should burrow through the brush and look for blackberries. They were fruiting over at his farm, but Dad had cut most of our bushes out that first summer, not realizing what they were.
Trip and I beat back the brush with sticks, filling the air with the sugary perfume of honeysuckle, which knotted its way up the young trees.
“These are trees of heaven,” I said to Trip, who was ahead of me, his small body slipping through the brush like a snake.
“Yeah?” he said, not turning back.
I could tell he didn’t care. What I was saying was a fact, like stuff we learned at school.
“Thought that was funny,” I said.
He pushed on. “Hey look here, it’s a piece of wood, like . . . a door.”
I plowed through the briers fast, letting them rip into my arms. Trip was already lifting up the door, a few thick, rough-hewn boards held together with strips of rusted metal. The boards twisted then fell apart as he opened it.
“Wonder what it’s for,” I said.
“I don’t know.” His bangs clung to his forehead with sweat. “But look.” He pointed into the brush in front of us.
The outline of a window frame appeared. Then I saw it: a low building, a chicken coop or pig sty, half collapsed and buried under the thicket.
“I never knew this was here,” I said.
“I guess not,” he said and laughed, all teeth. “I’m going in.” He dropped to his knees.
The floor had given way to leaves and dirt, leaving only the joists rotting in straight rows. I knelt at the window, watching Trip slide easily through the doorway and across to the far side, where he nestled between two joists and leaned back. The walls creaked but held.
“Come on,” he said, laughing. “It’s fine.” He put his arms above him, cradling his head like he was basking in the sun. I didn’t want to go—it was dark and dirty and I feared I might get bit or stung by some insect—but there was something about him sitting so contentedly without me that made me want to go. I stood a moment, swallowing hard and trying to figure out what to do. Then, I ducked down and stepped through the threshold.
The air was dank and cool, full of the scent of earth, leaves, and decaying boards. When I reached Trip, I sat down on the floor between the next set of joists, bumping my head on whatever was the left of the ceiling.
Trip laughed and dropped his left hand so that it fell against mine. He kept it there. I felt the presence of Trip’s body beside me. I leaned back, straining to relax, then I gazed out the window, nearly shaking.
An engine—a chainsaw or lawnmower—started up somewhere on the farm. Dad. He probably wanted me to help him, but he would never find me here. I was alone with Trip, our hands still barely touching, just the heat and pressure of his thumb against the side of my palm. Neither of us moved. Our breaths made thin circles of sound in the stillness of the shed. If I concentrated, I could feel a pulse, though I couldn’t tell whose. I wanted to move a finger over his hand, to test his reaction—but what if he moved away?
A breeze pulled through the walls, drawing in sweet honeysuckle and another, heavier scent, sweeter and more bitter. I breathed in deep to taste it, to figure out what it was.
Then I brushed my hand against Trip’s thumb, just once.
He moved it away, brought his hand over his head, then placed it behind my back. I knew this was his gesture of friendship, something intimate that boys could do because they couldn’t imagine anything more. I thought of Huck Finn, which we’d just read in English and glanced over at Trip. There was not even a light fuzz on his chin. His eyes were green and bright, but didn’t tell me anything about what he was thinking, if he was thinking anything at all. Everything felt heavy. It was me doing the thinking, like it had been all summer, though I had pretended that I was not.
A bird swooped low into the brush in front of us, then darted off.
“This is a cool place,” Trip said and tugged my shoulder slightly.
“Yeah,” I said, lifting my hand and setting it on his knee. His leg was small, hairless. Far off, Dad’s engine raced, then stalled.
The heat and pressure of his arm on my neck, the curve of his leg beneath my hand, us just sitting in the cool infinity of that buried room—it was enough.
It was, for sure—but then I wondered, what if there could be more?
I shut my eyes, took a breath in and smelled that heavy, flowery scent. It seemed like the very air was telling me that I should go on. I moved my hand, slid it toward Trip’s waist, as though I had just lost my hold.
Trip was motionless, his head tucked back against the wall. I reached up and felt the band of his shorts, lifted up his shirt, touching his smooth skin of his belly.
Then I felt it, a tug in his shorts. I slid my hand under his pants until my finger pressed against the edge of his underwear. I looked at Trip’s face again, so boy-like and plain, and I stopped.
“It’s okay,” he said, his eyes still shut, his body perfectly still.
But I couldn’t go on. He was thinking after all, possibly all kinds of things that I didn’t know. The silence was gone, and though the bitter sweet scent from some unknown plant still poured into the dark shed, it could no longer sway me.
I pulled my hand slowly out. “I just had to see,” I said—not even sure what I meant.
I felt embarrassed, but knew I had to pretend not to be. Still, I decided at that moment to stop hanging out with Trip, though I would do it gradually, so he wouldn’t think it was because of this. We were, after all, nothing like each other.
I worked those next few days with his dad and him. He’d smile and I’d smile faintly back. After a week though, I told him Dad wanted me back to work on seeding the field for the fall.
I was hoping to spend the last few weeks of summer alone, not working at all, but one morning, Dad woke me early. “Get dressed,” he said smiling. “I want to clear out an area at the base of the slope.” He stood up. “If we plant strawberries now, they might bear fruit next spring.”
I was half asleep, but I knew the place Dad meant. I waited until he left my room to get dressed. When I went downstairs for breakfast, he was already cleaning the chainsaw.
I walked out the backdoor slowly to the spot, where I saw a pile of tools already laying on the grass. I stood silent, watching, until Dad turned and said, “I thought you could hack at the small stuff.” He pointed to the briers.
I nodded, and though I didn’t want to, I picked up a clipper.
Dad pulled the chainsaw cord with his free hand, and the engine coughed gray smoke, then revved.
I went to work, cutting the briers one stalk at a time, smelling the honeysuckle and the sharp scent of Ailanthus wood as it became dust from Dad’s saw. Above those scents was the heavy perfumed blossom I’d smelled that day with Trip.
A few minutes later, I heard the engine die. “Look it here,” Dad said. “I think I found something.” Dad set the saw down, got the long-bladed clippers, and cut back the brambles.
“It’s a shed of some kind,” he said. “Who would have thought?” He pressed his clippers into a roof beam. The blade sank into the wood. “It’s rotted,” he said.
I stood there silent, unable to swallow.
“If I take out this tree,” Dad said, pointing to the one behind the shed, “it should fall on the thing and crush it.”
“Haven’t we taken down enough?” I said.
Dad stared at me. “Look, I know you don’t like cutting trees.” We hadn’t talked about this for a couple years. “But this here’s one of those Ailanthus.” He said it as though we both agreed they were bad.
“They call it the tree of heaven, you know,” Dad said, clearing brush around the tree. He’d told me this a couple times.
“So why not save it?” I said.
“It’s just a weed tree,” Dad said, starting the saw. “There’s nothing special about it.” Dad hunched his body rigid against the tree and yellowish dust began flurrying around him.
I wanted to rush up and push him away, but I would look silly. So I stepped way back. Each time he pressed the blade further into the trunk, the saw whined higher, like an enormous drill boring into my head.
Then I heard the crack and the swoosh. I felt a thud in my chest as the tree slammed against the earth and crushed the shed beneath it. A wave of air hit me, full of that heavy sweet, bitter scent. It was the Ailanthus, its flowers a tangle of yellow white blossoms at the end of each branch. I thought of Trip, and how I wished I’d done less with him, or more.
When the dust had died down, I went up and tried to break a blossom off the tree, but the wood was too green. So I snapped the branch with my clippers and held the flower in my hands as Dad cut the tree up into logs. He’d looked over at me, but didn’t say a word.
After, I went to my room, set the branch of flowers in a glass of water by my bed, and made a mark for the tree in my little book. It was the last one we cut down.
Author Bio: Nathan Alling Long’s work has won international competitions and appears on NPR and in various journals, including Tin House, Story Quarterly, Witness, and The Sun. The Origin of Doubt, a collection of fifty stories, was a 2019 Lambda finalist; Nathan’s second manuscript was an Iowa Fiction Award semi-finalist and Hudson Fiction Manuscript Prize finalist. They live in Philadelphia and teach at Stockton University.