If a Tree Grew as Tall

Jessica Bryant Klagmann

Sometimes I’ll go out and stand at the edge of the Highway, and look to my right and imagine that civilization doesn’t exist—and never did. Then I’ll look to my left and think the same thing. Then I’ll close my eyes and pretend, but inevitably a truck will rumble past and remind me of what’s just over my shoulder: two crumbling gas pumps, a general store, a restaurant, an outhouse, and the trailer where I live with my wife, Nora.

There are cars and people and a dog snoring on the porch.

Nora still likes to imagine how things are in other parts of the world. But I don’t have to. I see it every day on their faces, whether they’re taking the Alaska Highway north or south. And it’s always one of the two, just passing through. This isn’t anyone’s destination. Except for ours.

The couple comes in with a look of wonder on their faces like they’re being shown a new home. The woman walks past the cash register and into the restaurant, while the man bends over the gumball machine and slides quarters into it one after another and watches the gumballs travel a spiral tunnel until they slam up against the metal door. Behind the register, I assume he’s looking for a particular flavor and I want to tell him, Hey, just tip the thing over. Or, Hey, why don’t I just give you the key. But hardly anyone ever uses the machine anymore, so I just rest my elbows on the counter and enjoy the show.

Gumball after gumball down the tube.

I’m right. He gets a yellow one, finally, and comes over to the counter and drops the eight or so others in a pile. They roll in all directions. Creating barriers with his hands to stop the rolling balls, he says, “I can’t believe this is the first gas station in over eighty miles. What do you do for fun living out here, that’s what I want to know.”

Nora likes to point out that I always scratch my beard when I lie. “We play a lot of scrabble,” I tell him.

“We’re driving to Alaska,” he says. “For a job.”

I want to say, Yeah, you and everyone else in the joint. Move along, Bub.

Instead I glance at the shelves behind him that Nora and I haven’t dusted in months—rows of flashlights and a stack of old VHS tapes that we just can’t seem to bear throwing away—and tell him, “Good luck,” which probably sounds sarcastic.

When he joins his lady friend in the restaurant I scoop up the abandoned gumballs in both hands. I consider putting them back in the machine, but I’m afraid I’d be breaking some kind of health regulation, so I drop them into the deep pockets of my sweater.

The two of them spend so long with the menu, I could have rewritten it ten times over, but then they order grilled cheese, both of them, and I get to work buttering and assembling and melting and sizzling. Nora’s homemade bread is famous here on the Highway, but somehow I get a lot of the credit for these grilled cheeses.

***

At night I’m sitting in the living room and watching TV—something about an antique fair on the east coast. A young man showcasing a jukebox says, “It can be really hard to predict what people will want to buy.” Nora’s on the couch with her feet up, reading a book about trees. Fiction doesn’t interest her. She likes to know the facts.

“Did you know,” she says, “That in New Zealand, the oldest trees are given personal names?”

I shrug and say, “Such as? Give me an example.”

“Tane Mahuta,” she reads aloud, her voice uncertain of the pronunciation. Then she closes the book and rises. “It means ‘lord of the forest’ I guess. That seems like the kind of title you could be proud of. I’m going to make that bread now.”

When she disappears, I sip my beer and turn up the volume a little.

An older woman with pumped up blond hair and a large chest talks about how far she traveled to get to the antique fair. All the way from western Texas to Massachusetts. She’s holding up a couple of dull-looking pewter funnels.

I kick off my slippers and count the things in the room that might be future antiques, setting the cutoff at thirty years plus. This hideous Oriental rug, for one. A picture frame above the television, along with the wedding photo inside. My beard. The gumballs in my pocket, probably. The crystal ashtray. A memory of my mother the night before she died, arranging the butts in a symmetrical pattern along its edge. I was forty-five then, teaching in Boston, still intending to do something important.

Nora always makes me feel like someone. When she comes back from the kitchen with a fresh and sweating bottle of beer, she says, “What would you call me? If I was an old tree?”

I think for an extra moment while she stands there in front of me. She’s got a pink apron tied around her waist and flour smeared across her cheek. On the television, the Dolly Parton look-alike says—like she’s some kind of genius—that she’s going to turn these funnels into candle-holders. She flips them upside down to demonstrate.

All these new uses for old things.

Nora’s hair used to be the color of dark, rusted metal. And long too. Now there are wispy little white curls just under her ears. She wipes the beer bottle on her apron and, still holding it, puts her hands on her hips, waiting. I’m not feeling very creative. I search.

“I’d call you Nora,” I say. Then I watch her eyes and hope she isn’t disappointed.

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Jessica Bryant Klagmann grew up in New Hampshire, received an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and currently teaches at Northern New Mexico College. She writes, she runs, she bakes. She adventures often with her husband and their lab-husky companion. Her stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Antipodes, and elsewhere.