My car jostles and heaves like I’m in the bitter swell of Alaskan waters. The problem being, I’m driving on a road that’s only slightly unevenly paved. Oh, the noises are unbearable! I drive over seven pebbles and you’d think you were in a train that just jumped the tracks. I turn the radio up to drown out the groans of my ancient car.
“Four years ago today the ‘Dark Mist of the Forest’ painting was stolen from BCA Museum.” The voice blared from the radio over my car’s moans. “Reminiscent of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Vanished without a trace.”
I shake my head. Here I am, dying to have anyone look at my art. I’d be elated for someone to steal my art, so long as it meant they were eager to have it. That’s the dream, really. To have steal-worthy art.
The radio continues even though I’m musing of someone stealing a painting of mine from a museum someday. “After two years of law enforcement finding nothing, BCA museum extended a 100,000-dollar reward. After three years, 200,000 dollars. On the four-year anniversary, the reward for the painting’s safe return, three million dollars. One million above its value. If the painting is returned, no questions asked. A list of associates through the museum will each act as a sort of middle-man. Among those middle-men, Adam Bunklin, Len Peterson, Mac Segreti…”
I change the station on the radio, ironically just as they mention Mr. Segreti’s name. A good friend of my father’s, one of the more positive and composed people I have met. Showing complete composure that entire time he helped me with my craft. And I admit, I’m not an easy student. Well, I’m not a student. I’m a waiter. Probably why I’m not an easy student.
The pebbles are gone, and my car exits Level Five Turbulence. We may now roam about the cabin. I can see dad’s house in the distance. Why he got this secluded house after Mom died, I’ll never know. It’s more affordable. But it’s so lonely. No neighbors for a mile. And there is the pear tree in the front yard. My pear tree.
The strangest gift my father ever gave me. For my 18th birthday, just as I was accepting I would not be able to afford college, he planted a pear tree in his front yard and said “Happy birthday!”
He then told me how the pear tree takes a long time to produce pears. Four to six years. Of all the fruit trees, it is one of the ones that takes the longest to begin producing fruit, but once it does, it rewards you for a long time. Wonderful. A present that doesn't pay off immediately. Just what every 18-year-old wants.
And to top it all off, I’m not even a pear person. I’m more of an apple, orange, banana guy. Sure, in my teens I began to dabble in peach and plum territory. I’ve been known to purchase strawberries when they’re on sale. But pears? I don’t even know if I like pears! I might hate them!
I’ve eaten three pears in my life. The first pear I recall feeling very gritty in texture, like I was eating something that blossomed from the sand. Is that the texture of pears? Sandy? Who would like this? People eat these things though, right? It’s like those maniacs that rave about cotton candy. You’re essentially putting a bland, sugar-tasting substance in your mouth with the texture of hair. People freak out when there’s one single hair in their food. This is a whole wad of hair! Why doesn’t anyone else find this as utterly disgusting as I do?
The second time I ate a pear, it came with a sandwich. I got three bites in and wondered if this sandbox with a stem had gone bad.
The third time I ate a pear was because I needed to get to the bottom of this pear business. Was it just that I had only eaten bad pears? I wouldn’t know how to choose a good pear. And if I’m judging a fruit by only unripe, bad examples, then that just isn’t fair of me. I had a friend who ate pears all the time. Weirdo. Probably had cotton candy every night for dessert too. I asked him to pick a pear out for me. He knew how to spot a ripe one with ease. I ate it. Better than the first two. Nothing amazing. I don’t much see the appeal.
And then my father bought me a pear tree.
My 19th birthday present was coordinates from the front porch to the pear tree. Like a little treasure map. 30 paces forward, four to the right. Mind you, my 19th birthday present. Not my ninth.
My 20th birthday present. His pear tree mantra printed and laminated. “Though pear trees take a long time to be fruitful, once they do become fruitful, they are very fruitful.”
21st birthday. Finally, off the pear theme. I receive a shovel. Probably to scoop up all these bullshit presents.
I try not to give him too much guff. Times have been rough. All that smoke inhalation has put in him in an awful physical state. And in all honesty, I can’t say without certainty it didn’t affect his mind as well.
Ever since that day, Dad’s been different.
Getting called to that burning building with his partner. They rescued four people, I believe. A few young kids. And one woman, Katie Crawford. Mom’s good friend. Katie used every ounce of breath she could muster to tell my father that Mom was in the building. The fire was too big at this point, but he went in anyway. He would’ve died in that fire had his partner and a few others not gone in to pull him out. He would’ve died trying to find Mom. His partner had to knock him over the head so that they could drag him out.
My father lost it. He blamed his partner and the rest of the fire department for Mom’s death. Said they held him back. Said he was going to save her. He later tried to sue the fire department. That didn’t go well. Lost that case, lost his job, and in his feeble state from fighting fires for two decades, and from just having lost the love of his life, he was a wreck, unable to secure regular work.
Birthday presents are now of no importance. Being able to put food on the table and a roof over our heads was all that mattered. And that was a struggle.
I finally have pulled all the way up the long driveway. Curtis The Car made it in one piece. Its a feat worth celebrating every day I drive somewhere and don’t die. I park next to Dad’s nurse’s blue hatchback and someone’s BMW.
As I stroll towards the front door, Alice exits. “He’s not doing well today. Happy belated birthday, Byron.” She heads to her car. Damn, that one may be in the running for best birthday present of all. Although, I still have whatever gift that Dad’s going to give me. I haven’t been around since number 22, which was almost three months ago. In his weak condition I’ve tried to visit him often, but I’ve been picking up a lot more shifts lately. The extra money has been much needed.
As I reach the door, Mr. Segreti swings it open, nearly clocking me in the head.
“Oh! Mr. Segreti. You’re… here.” I told you, I’m an artist. Not a master wordsmith.
He chuckles. “That I am. Was checking in on your Dad. Not uh, not looking good. But it’s good you’re here. He’s been asking about you a lot.”
I nod and glance down at my shoes. Subsequently, I see his shoes. Fanciest pair I’ve ever seen. They glisten in the setting sun with a reflection shooting off them like we’re in the middle of a J.J. Abrams movie. Damn, the money this guy must have.
“The big 22, huh? Exciting stuff.” Mr. Segreti has an odd expression that I can’t read. I told you, I’m an artist. Not a facial expression reader. But it’s this mix of joy, coupled with grief.
“I think you’re thinking of number 21?” I try to remind him of the legal drinking age.
“Nope. I’m not." He smiles, pats my head and leaves.
I enter my Dad’s room and he’s leaned over in his bed coughing. My paintings are hung all over the walls. My biggest fan. My cousin Matthew has one of my paintings, I think out of pity. Mr. Segreti has one. I suspect pity there as well. The rest of them hang in my Dad’s bedroom. Dad sees me.
“Byron! Happy birthday!” He opens his arms for a hug. I slink over to embrace him, careful not to squeeze too hard. He looks awful.
“I know what you’re thinking! I look better than ever!” We have the same sense of humor. “But I have to tell you something important. And it hurts just to talk. So, just let me get through this. I don’t have much time. The doctors are forcing me to leave the house. But they suspect I have less than a week left… even in their care at the hospital.”
My eyes immediately begin to well with tears. This came on so quickly. The last time I was here… was about six months ago actually. How awful.
“Don’t worry. You have a busy life.” He knows what I’m thinking. “What’s important is your birthday present.”
“Dad…” He won’t let me get further than one word.
“Nope! I’m doing the talking.” He struggles to pull himself up in his bed. I help him to a seated position. “Your birthday present this year… is your last four birthday presents.”
Alice enters the room with a wheelchair. She begins helping Dad into it.
“I’m off to the hospital now.” Dad is already being wheeled away. This is so sudden, what’s happening?! Dad takes one last look around at all my paintings and points at them. “You’re too good. Raw talent, Segreti says. You need to go to school. You would if you were able, right?”
“Yeah, I mean, the money, I—” The wordsmith strikes again.
“That’s all I needed to hear. I’ll call you when I’m in the hospital.”
I stand on the front porch and watch Alice loading him into the car. I’m frozen on this wood plank, watching. Her car putters down the long driveway, turns onto the road and rides off. I stare off into the yard… looking at my pear tree.
You know what, I never noticed this. But the pear tree is straight ahead… and to the left. I never realized Dad’s ‘treasure map’ is wrong. “30 paces forward, four to the right.”
I step off the porch and walk forward 30 steps. I’m dead even with the pear tree. Dad got that part right. But the pear tree is clearly 10 or 12 steps to my left. Four steps to the right? I spin to the right and decide, why not? The old man probably lost it, but what the hell. So sad. He was always so sharp.
One, two, three, and four, right into a soft patch of dirt. What’d he plant an apricot tree over here or something?
I start to move the dirt with my hands. It’s somewhat loose. There’s something under here.
I push piles and piles of dirt aside. I look around, nervously. No one’s watching. Of course. There’s no one for a mile. I finally pull aside enough dirt to uncover something. The corner of something wood. I pull more dirt away from the object, revealing black letters etched on it. I squint to read the letters.
“Dark Mist of the Forest.”
Where the hell is that shovel?