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The 2024 Bette Howland Prize

April 23, 2024 by Tom Taylor

We are pleased to share "The Tree Trimmer" by Tom Taylor, selected by Sonora Jha for the 2024 Bette Howland Nonfiction Prize. The prize was founded in 2017 by Honor Moore to recognize the work of a graduating nonfiction writer and honor the legacy of Bette Howland (1937–2017), who had mentored Honor Moore in her twenties and with whom she had lost touch. (Honor Moore wrote about their friendship in the afterword to Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage: The Selected Stories of Bette Howland.)

Judge's Citation:

"The Tree Trimmer" radiates ingenuity even while telling of age-old matters such as love, death, and loneliness. Over just ten pages, we fall in love with strangers at a funeral—a son in grief, a woman who hoards Star Wars memorabilia, and a tree trimmer longing for connection. Humor seeps out from within the sadness. As with the very best of essays, Tom Taylor's extraordinary writing here leaves us quiet, heartbroken at the inevitability of loss.

Sonora Jha is the author of three books, most recently the novel The Laughter, which was long-listed for the 2024 Aspen Words Literary Prize. Her memoir, How to Raise a Feminist Son, has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Her debut novel, Foreign, was a finalist for the Shakti Bhatt Prize and the Hindu Prize. After a career in journalism in India and Singapore, Dr. Jha is now a professor of journalism and an associate dean at Seattle University.

The Tree Trimmer

…it's just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in "En ménage" by J. K. Huysmans: the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one's bed but which one doesn't make.

—Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Émile Bernard, June 19, 1888

Someone at the funeral reached a hand onto my shoulder and asked me who that woman was; he nodded toward her. In those days I often thought about Cortázar’s “Continuity of Parks,” the protagonist who rested his head against the back of a green velvet chair, reading a novel. As he, the first reader, had lost himself in the book’s final scenes, I, the second reader, had too—or had he fallen asleep, were these scenes only a figment? Regardless, secret lovers, a woman and man, plotted at a mountain cabin until “the caresses that ensnared the lover’s body, wanting to restrain him, dissuade him, abominably sketched the figure of the other body that it was necessary to destroy.” And a description of a novelesque journey followed, leading the lover with a dagger in his hand to an estate, to a living room, to the head of a man visible over the back of a green velvet chair. For me, this was the kind of thing that Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

The hand on my shoulder, the nod—I didn’t need to look—I knew the mourner was inquiring about Connie. She stood out among the lake people. That is not to say that seventy years of sun had not damaged her skin or that her voice did not carry a distance, it is to say that something in particular separated her from the others. It must have been the visual cue—few would have realized that she was the only one there to know my father in the final years of his life. So why, instead of nodding in Connie’s direction, didn’t the man just say, “The person wearing the T-shirt that reads, The Force Awakens”?

I found myself wondering who Connie was when the DVD slideshow paused on a picture of my father. He wore large glasses and a mustache, beneath the mustache, a smile. I had not seen him for so long, his smile even longer, that his face seemed strange, new. He had his arms around my brother and me, the two of us just children at the time. One of the onlookers said, “Those are some cute boys.”

They sure are,” Connie responded, looking not at the screen but making eye contact with me instead.

One of my mother’s friends’ husbands, a joker, interrupted the silence: “Yeah, what happened?”

Although twenty years had passed since my mother took the photo, I agreed with Connie. I thought my brother and I still looked cute. I felt boyish, anyway, maybe because people aged prematurely in this town or maybe because I had to borrow one of my brother’s ties; and my brother appeared youthful in his own suit and tie, and the old folks still gave him the attention they reserved for children on account of him being a doctor. Instead of saying, “What a handsome young man you are,” they said, “I have this terrible ache,” or, pulling up a pant leg, “What do you think this rash is?” At this, my brother would widen his eyes and they might turn to me and ask, “Tom, what do you do again?” I would take a moment to think about a vague artistic aspiration, or the job I took no meaning in, and I would confuse them with my answer because I was so confused myself—so that by the time we finished speaking I was less sure about what I did, and they were sure to avoid engaging me in further conversation.

Some years before, a friend sent me a news article titled “Michigan Man Dies in Crash While Driving and Masturbating to Porn on his Phone.” When I read it, I wondered if the man had children and if they felt uncomfortable at his funeral. Now I thought, If my father had died like that, it might be easier to explain—a single headline provided all of the necessary details. Instead, my father died by degrees and for this reason he had been dead to me for most of a decade. Sure, I received a voicemail from him once a year, sometime during the month of my birth, but it never came on the correct day. Here the sole indication of what had happened was the addiction treatment center donation box that we set up in lieu of flowers. So, when one of the sun-dried elders from the lake said, “Oh, the Hazelden Foundation, is that for cancer?” All I said was, “No,” and then I thought of my father the way I often did, on the rare occasion that I did think of him, as a tiger, the tiger from Cortázar’s “Bestiary,” the tiger that shared the family’s home, the tiger they thought nothing of living their lives around.

As we sat waiting for the service to begin, Connie seemed to be entertaining a growing circle of chairs. My mother asked if we should make her leave but last-minute arrivals prohibited an answer. As my aunt showed my brother a bruise that covered her bicep and asked if he could inspect the severe sunburn on her granddaughter’s shoulder, my brother’s girlfriend mentioned that she had noticed the way Connie looked at me. It seems that Connie told her, “Nick is such a nice young man but that Tom,” and when she said my name her voice changed and took on a more salacious tone, “I just can’t get a read on him. He won’t tell me what he does.

The pastor spoke next to a cheerful arrangement of flowers that surrounded a headshot of my father, his face larger than its actual size. My family had made ourselves responsible for these preparations in the days leading up to the funeral. It’s a small town and at the flower shop the florist recognized my mother. He said, “Hi, Sally,” and my mother corrected him,“Julie.” She and I spent a long time looking at a book of arrangements. She found them all distasteful. She kept saying they looked too much like funeral arrangements to which I would say, “It is a funeral,” and she would respond, “You know what I mean—they’re all shaped into an ugly triangle.” My brother, who had spent several summers during college arranging silk flowers at a flea market, spent most of the time petting the florist’s dog, introduced to us as Reggie before the florist noted his error, “Archie.” And when we met the pastor in her study, which was decorated with fishing paraphernalia—cane poles and tackle, framed pictures of her holding bass and pike—the description my mother and brother gave of the deceased bore no resemblance to my father whatsoever. The man they described suffused his life with stimulating tasks: learning to fly a plane or sail a boat, understanding feats of engineering. Active in body and mind, he excelled in all of the roles he took on: businessman, husband, father. In fact, it was said that his pride in his sons grew so apparent to him that he stated, on a few occasions, “he couldn’t have dreamt them up.” In the end, the pastor’s service called to mind fishing: an activity my father had never shown any particular interest in.

As Connie left the funeral—one of the last to go—I offered her nothing more than a wave. She didn’t accept this farewell; she beckoned me with her forefinger. She said, “You know I’m not leaving without one of these,” and she spread her arms to envelope me in an embrace, moist with perspiration, that gave me time to think about when we first met, a few days before.

“Her house is all Star Wars. Her house is all Star Wars and you wouldn’t have wanted to see his room.” That’s what my mother had said to my brother and me.

“What do you mean it’s all Star Wars?” I asked.

“She has Star Wars everything,” my mother said.

“Like the cups?” I said stupidly.

“Yes, the cups. The shelves are filled, she owns a life-sized… what’s that thing called… a wookiee?” She told us she had never seen anything like our father’s room: pill bottles, trash, new and used cigarettes littered the cat-piss-soaked carpeting; she found a joint on the desk, wine bottles under the bed; his computer didn’t work; he had broken his phone and glued his glasses at the temples into one rigid piece; there was a picture of my brother and me on the nightstand.

If not for the warning, as we pulled into the driveway I would have thought Connie’s house to be the same as any other house on this small Midwestern lake, no more than ten miles from where my mother lives. I might not have noticed the outdoor grill shaped like a spaceship as we made our way to the entrance. I would have paid more attention to the barking dogs and the picture of a gun taped to the sliding glass door which read, “Beware: The Owner of This Property Is Armed.”

My mother knocked with an authority she didn’t often show. I worried she might not wait for an answer before entering and just as she seemed to reach for the handle, Connie came to the door. She gave us her condolences and I noticed that my mother had understated: on every surface, shelf, and bit of floor space, hanging from the ceiling and walls, was a collection of Star Wars memorabilia from 1977 to present, organized and arranged with care. There was the Millennium Falcon rug, the framed picture of Princess Leia, the cupboard full of baby Yodas and, although there turned out not to be a wookiee, there was what my brother has told me is a wampa, the wookiee’s abominable snowman cousin, staring at us from the corner of the room.

Unprovoked, Connie told us that her relationship with my father had been platonic. I realized that I had failed to consider that a romantic relationship could take place with the amount of science fiction memorabilia present and I began to question my assumption. Connie reiterated that she and my father lived as roommates, telling us that they had gone to high school together and that they reconnected on Facebook. She said that since her husband died from cancer, she needed the money from renting out the extra room. I believed every word she said because she also offered the information that, not long after her husband’s death, she found herself in an affair with a man twenty-two years her junior, a tree trimmer.

“Boys, do you want to see your Dad’s room?” my mother asked, leading the way. I felt like a child following her and it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen my mother take charge this way in twenty years, since the first night my father passed out in our living room. She had known just what to do then. She grabbed my brother and me and we drove from the house into the night. I wasn’t sure that I trusted her, it looked like my father had only been sleeping—I didn’t see anything wrong in that. Besides, he seemed like the center around which our family revolved. But my mother was strong at the wheel, in the glimmer of the passing streetlights and headlamps, and she explained things well. She explained that our father took too much medication and that, right now, he wasn’t our father. She explained that he wouldn’t be our father again until he stopped taking the medication.

We came home after a few days. My mother said that our father was back and that we weren’t to talk about it. Maybe he was back for a while, because the next time it happened she no longer remembered what to do. She didn’t realize what she should do for another fifteen years, until the denial formed a cancer in her abdomen and they told her that she had six months to live. Only when she left him did she start to regain her strength. And after twenty years she seemed as strong as she once did, when she led my brother and me into our father’s bedroom.

On Tuesday, October 16, 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo from the city of Arles. He had moved there to set up a studio and awaited the company of his friend Paul Gauguin. With the letter, he included a sketch. It detailed a painting of his bedroom and, to assist his brother’s imagination, he accompanied it with the following description:

                    The walls are of a pale violet. The floor—is of red tiles.
                    The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
                    The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
                    The blanket scarlet red.
                    The window green.
                    The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
                    The doors lilac.
                    And that’s all—nothing in this bedroom, with its shutters closed.

As a child, I saw the painting in a museum and felt nothing. I don’t mean that I didn’t find it pleasing or think it a work of art—I thought it to be both of those things. I felt nothing because that is all I knew art to be at the time, a beautiful painting. And later, when I learned there was more to it, I dismissed the work. I presumed the painting could only contain what I saw as a child.

So I was surprised, nearly twenty years later, when I stepped into the room where my father died, to find myself thinking of that same painting with great emotion. That is because my father’s room was Van Gogh’s room in Arles. That’s not to say the two were identical, although they were similar in size and shape and—I know this can’t be true—the floor, walls, and few objects in my father’s bedroom appeared as warped as those in the artist’s composition. It is to say that upon entering, a mental image of the painting at once overwhelmed my vision, rendering the dreary space in a frenzy of color. Van Gogh had painted his bedroom during a period of excitement that presaged the arrival of Gauguin and I felt I could see the painting now for what it was: a mad vision, each brushstroke predicting the altercation that would come between the two artists and find resolution in the cutting of the ear. Just as Van Gogh’s madness must have been present in the room in Arles when he painted it, before the arrival of Gauguin, my father’s madness lingered in his room after his death. All that was left was a stained floor, a box fan, and a table lamp with the shade askew, revealing a base decorated with horses; and the box fan blew across the stained floor so that the horses seemed as if they might gallop.

That night the small bedroom I stayed in at my mother’s cottage seemed askew like my father’s room, like Van Gogh’s room in Arles. I found myself thinking of my apartment, maybe it was the same? Maybe every room was my father’s room that night, every room contained his lonely death. And because I pictured my own apartment, the thin mattress, the art supplies, the clothes I had strewn across the floor as I left, I imagined that death for myself and hoped only then, as I fell asleep to a cascade of visions, that there were times when my father’s suffering gave way to oblivion.

I apologize for not having all of the details about Connie’s affair with the tree trimmer but it’s a simple story really, a story that can only begin on the day he first trimmed her trees. I am sure Connie must have made an excuse to invite him in, maybe she left her checkbook inside. Yes, she left her checkbook in the basement. So, she invites the tree trimmer inside and asks him if he would like something to drink. Looking around the room, he says that “all her stuff is impressive,” as she thought he would, and she thinks about that word, impressive, and the way the tree trimmer said it as she goes to retrieve the check.

The basement has no science fiction memorabilia. It is bare save for one wall decorated with ribbons, medals, and trophies in the shape of horses. The trophies are all lined up, as if in a stampede. As she reaches for the desk drawer she thinks of when she used to ride, the wind in her hair, the smell of the morning dew on the fields. The drawer is stuck and will not pull all of the way open but she squeezes her fingers inside and feels the checkbook become a horse bridle in her hand. She thinks of the tree trimmer upstairs. She wonders if he’s looking at the picture of the woman in the metal bikini. Would it make him blush? Could anyone tell if he was blushing, with that thick beard?

The next time the tree trimmer has a job at Connie’s house he stops by the self-service car wash in town. He feels embarrassed for a moment, looking at his filthy truck. He fills the machine with coins and he sprays the truck with soap and he sprays the truck with water. More quarters clink in the machine; he vacuums the area around the driver’s and passenger’s seats, marveling at the suction. As he puts away the hose, he stares at the clean landscaping logo on the side of the truck. He says to himself that he should have pride in that. He will show up with his livelihood in tow. And then, working on the trees, he stares down at Connie from above, chainsaw in hand, and only because his mind works better up there in the branches, works better when his hands are occupied, the thought comes to him as a gust in the pines, she knows loneliness like I know loneliness. And he cuts into the tree.

A few weeks go by and Connie glimpses her reflection in the television screen. She runs a finger over the wrinkles around her left eye and thinks maybe the tree trimmer was too young for her, maybe that’s why she feels this way. Then, she glances at the white-haired statue in the corner of the room and realizes it’s the opposite. She still feels young inside, much younger than the tree trimmer acts. She is the same person who rode horses. She is the same person she was in 1977 when she saw A New Hope. Her roommate stumbles into the living room and she thinks that he looks old too. He is an old man, but she is not an old woman. Her roommate smells of smoke and he puts on a stained suede jacket and says, “Don’t I look handsome?” Her gaze returns to the television; she squints for a better look.

Connie’s roommate gets in his car and places a Camel cigarette between his lips. He lights it and it falls from his mouth as he tries to put the lighter away, first burning his shirt, then the floor mat. He can’t bend over since the doctors fused his spine so he attempts to put it out with his shoe and lights another cigarette as he drives into town, using the cup holder as an ashtray. He veers across the center line now and again but the car stays on course when he pulls into the pharmacy drive-through.

He takes a small handful of pills with a sip of Diet Coke as he turns back onto the street. And driving home, he begins to feel ill. He tugs at his waistband. His stomach is in a terrible knot, and there is no time to pull to the side of the road. A thin film of vomit covers the windshield and the sun hits it, filling the car with an amber glow. He turns on the windshield wipers and then he remembers that it is on the inside. His stomach feels much improved, the wipers make a pleasing thwack and he notices a small area of the windshield not obscured by vomit. It seems a divine intervention because light shines through, and the hole is just large enough to view the road as he drives. He rolls down the windows and imagines he can smell the country air. It’s a peaceful drive, one of those drives where the car seems to steer itself.

He thinks he needs to tell Connie about the windshield as he’s pulling into the garage, it was such a miraculous thing. He makes a circle with his index finger and thumb and puts it close to his eye and it’s the same as looking through the vomit. He’s going to tell Connie about it as he closes the car door, as he climbs the stairs, as he passes through the living room but, then, he’s already in his small bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed, examining the framed picture of his boys on the nightstand.

Tom Taylor is a writer and literary translator based in New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing with concentrations in fiction and nonfiction at The New School.

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