The Tree

Johnny was coming around the bend of a path through the park woods when he saw an old man on his hands and knees in a bright clearing up ahead. 

Without thinking to, he stopped. Sophie, his spaced-out dog, kept on toward the man, not looking where she was going, weaving from smell to smell, off and on the path, pushing into low branches and briars, turning up leaves, oblivious as usual. Though she was devoted to Johnny, Sophie took no interest in other people or other dogs or wild animals just in smells as if her breed had lost something way back and it was her sole mission in life to find it again. True to form, she cantered, up on her toes, right past the man. He was not what she was looking for.

Johnny felt a thrill at seeing the guy. He wanted things to happen; he didn’t care what, just something. His life had become dull and he regarded each new person or situation as a door that might be thrown open onto a more exciting future. Or if not that, it would at least give him a story to tell on a date. He was tired of repeating himself on dates.

This can’t be good. Maybe the old guy’s been mugged or he’s having a heart attack. He hoped he wasn’t drunk, the usual, another pathetic lost soul.

Without wishing the man any harm, Johnny wanted to help or rescue him since there were few reasons for someone to be down on all fours which didn’t involve trouble, even lost keys. This was a lingering remnant of a desultory childhood of wandering alone in a semi-urban woods akin to this one, imagining himself a hero. Coming to the park every afternoon was a familiar ritual as if he was searching like Sophie for something lost a long time ago.  Johnny often puzzled at how the woods made him feel peaceful and sad, settled and unsettled, at home yet full of longing.

He started walking again. The old man was dressed in jeans, boots and a red flannel shirt, maybe an outdoor type which seemed one good thing at least. The shirt’s startling red color, aglow in the late afternoon sun, standing out as it did, reminded Johnny of something though he couldn’t think what.  

“Excuse me, Sir,” he said, coming up and stopping. “Are you all right?”

“Sure,” said the man with a glance over his shoulder. “No need to worry. Just finishing up,” 

Johnny noticed the man’s small shovel, looked like army issue from way back, and the two foot high sapling he had just planted and mulched. 

The man was pretty old and not in that good shape. Frail now, he did give the impression of having been strong and fit once. He rose to his knees and then used the shovel as a crutch to try to get to his feet. Imminent accident was in the air and the thrill of rescue possible. Johnny was ready. The old man’s arm strained and trembled against the shaking shovel handle. He wobbled and was about to keel over when Johnny caught hold of his free arm as it flapped wildly for balance. He held the guy up and steadied him to his feet. Though the old man didn’t weigh much, his grip on Johnny’s forearm was surprisingly strong. That felt good, strength for strength, man to man. Johnny was one of those perpetual youths looking for a father in every older man he met. He accorded them immediate deference, while at the same time feeling his too transparent needs instantly lost him the respect he hoped to gain.


“Not a problem, Sir.”

The man had deep lines, a lifetime of expressions carved into his yellowish, grey face. Though he no longer filled out his clothes, giving his body a bent, feathery flimsiness, his face had thick, fleshy features, full lips, heavy jowls, plump, curled ears. His hair was wispy and windblown. The two looked at each other for a few quiet moments, something Johnny would never do with a man his own age.  He noticed a flickering glint in the man’s otherwise vague, red-rimmed, brown eyes.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing down there?” Johnny said.

“Not at all.  I just planted this pecan tree here.”


“In twenty years, more or less, if all goes well, you’ll be able to pick nuts from it,”  the old man said and moaned with pleasure.  “Hmmm.”

Pecans are good. Love pecans and pecan pie. Planting trees is good. Old guy wants to plant a pecan tree.  All good, Johnny thought but then felt sad and sorry for himself.  Hope I’m not walking around here in twenty years, same as now, everything the same as now.  I’ll be almost fifty years old.  

Sophie came trotting up, having wandered and weaved so far ahead she had gotten worried and needed to come back. Now her head was up, no longer down smelling whatever, and her tail wagging because she needed to be petted and relieved of the anxiety of having been separated from her master. 

“No offense, Sir, but I hope I’m not still around here in twenty years.”

“Places to go, huh?  See the world.  Young man like you.  Can’t blame you.”

“Sorry, Sir,” Johnny said, realizing the guy would be lucky to last five much less twenty years. “That was a stupid thing to say. Thoughtless.  Planting a tree, I think that’s great. But why a pecan tree? Peaches or apples, they’d ripen much sooner.”

“Turn around. You see that tree in among the others there, with the long dark green leaves, that’s a pecan tree too, the parent of this sapling.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. But it never had the chance to fruit out much because of all the other trees around it blocking the sun. Only a pitiful amount of nuts ever. I live up there, up that hill on the street bordering the park, so what I did was pick a few nuts, sprouted and grew them at home and this one made it into a strong sapling. Planted in this clearing with plenty of sun, it might make it, right across the path from its parent.”

“Wow, that’s wild. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“I had a dream one night told me to, so I did.”

“Today?” Johnny said, musing to himself so it sounded like a question.

“Sure, today.”

“No, I mean, I hardly ever come to this side of the park and, I don’t know, I just felt like it today, with the dog.”

“So maybe you’ll feel like it twenty years from now.”

“Maybe I will.”

“Well, enjoy the nuts and remember me.”

“Sure, Sir.  You need a hand with anything?”

“No, here comes my wife now. God bless her.”

A woman, dressed in white tennis shoes, shorts, a tank top and red kerchief, same red as the guy’s shirt, was marching toward them down the grass hill at the edge of the clearing. Stepping lively, she was tall and thin and angular and determined to make her way as if the hill were crowded with people to shove aside. Old guy’s wife looked like she might make it twenty years. 

“She’s upset. But look at those legs. She’s a stallion with good, young legs on her. Look at ‘em. Huh? Look at her.”

Johnny, who had been thinking the same thing, nice legs, felt an embarrassed laugh bubble up inside him. 

“She’s a hottie, all right.”

The old man moaned with pleasure again.

“When we were young, we fought and usually in the middle of a fight, I’d look at her legs and figure out a way to surrender. Better leave me to her now. I wasn’t supposed to come down here by myself.”

“Sure thing, Sir. See ya’ later. Good luck.”

“Looks like I’ll need it.”

Johnny headed down the path again with Sophie and, though he really wanted to, didn’t turn around until he had walked about a hundred yards. He saw the old husband and wife starting up the hill side by side one step at a time and then a long rest. At that rate, her waiting for him, the sun would be down before they reached the top.

Johnny didn’t feel like following the path any further. He headed deeper into the woods, weaving around trees, ducking low branches, kicking through fallen leaves, the smells, the colors, the feeling, as familiar to him as anything he knew in this life. 

Overcome by a sudden tiredness, Johnny sat down with his back against a large oak and fell into a waking sleep in which thoughts and imaginings didn’t take place in him so much as pass through him like a membrane. He thought-dreamed himself twenty years into the future. He was standing near the pecan tree ablaze in the afternoon sun, branches hanging heavily with clusters of nuts. He remembered the old man, surely gone now from this world. He looked for Sophie whose head was resting in his lap. But no, of course not, the dog was dead too.

Johnny woke then, lonely unto crying.

Steven Schutzman
has published fiction and drama in many literary journals including The Pushcart Prize, TriQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Post Road, Cafe Irreal, The Eclectica Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Third Coast, Night Train, Conclave, The Big Stupid Review and Gargoyle. He is also the recipient of five Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Grant Awards. You can read and find out more about his work at stevenschutzman

Sondern als ein Mensch

April 17

He visits a sunset from his childhood. The dollop of flame-hungry orange eats one segment of the horizon and, from his perspective, seems to hang above the distant tree line and wait for the day to acknowledge itself, its end.

It is a slow summer day, the kind that lasts forever to a child.

Such is the memory as he dips the nib of his pen in the inkwell and scratches out another line on another page in the tablet. His hands don’t shake when he writes.

Of that much he is certain.

For now his mind remains clear, and he finds himself bedded between strings of equations and a tumbling set of thoughts for a speech.

But for a little violin. . . Even if the nurse could somehow manage to bring a record player for some Serenade No. 13, oh, that would be nice indeed.



Sun and moon and stars dance with precision and certainty. It is a most Swiss trait, and the clocktower at Bern, the most Swiss of clocks. He has counted the paces on his way to work at the patent office. Converted them to meters. In his mind’s eye he views the interconnected cogs and gears and springs. Because of these and his measured paces, he knows how fast he walks. Hands move against an implacable face, and he imagines, yes, as the face of God could be as the universe spins against His own.


April 17

His eyes flicker-flutter beneath heavy eyelids. A lifetime of dreams populates that inner darkness and illuminates it in bursts and winks like so many stars and spiraling galaxies.

In this sleep, knit up from care, he smiles. Somewhere must be a single equation for this all.

His hand traces weak signs over the bedsheet.

The memory will be there when he wakes.



Some things are not predictable such as getting a university teaching position. Some things are predictable such as a shift in a cold office, looking at patents. Numbers for them all. Strings of them.

He will write later, much later. But his mind finds liberty in the monotony as images gyre through it. Gamboling Gedankenexperiments. For now, though, it is to review patents. Outside, light slants and slices in perilously slow arcs. He checks his watch. What rides the caesura between seconds?

The clock face doesn’t move. He checks his pocket watch. All stills. He has become the space and breath—the breadth, even—between each tick. He turns his face like a flower following the sun and squints under the spray of light eight minutes in its flight to his eyes.

He cannot get home in time to write the equations, so they stream through his mind’s eye, and he holds them, covetous of them as he was with the compass as a boy.


April 17

The day has gone fast and slowly. Page after page—scritch of a pen’s nib. The ubiquitous tick of the clock. Swish of another tablet-page turning. Could he reconcile all theories? Unify all in one point?

He could.

One atom.


A planet.

Even position and speed, elusive and illegitimate dice that they are.

Perhaps there was absolution or reconciliation, like the price of one of four papers, or a prize.

One good paper. One last. If only another annus mirabilis.

Not yet.

He continues writing, but for a time the dance of mathematical certitude escapes him for a bastard child. He leaves off the conjecturing and returns to another piece of work.

If not the equations, then the speech.



Music draws him out, helps him find the resonance in himself to reach out, even embrace the sounds. Their waves. He thinks it fitting that he finds comfort and inspiration at the curious intersection of his thoughts in some violin. Fixed beats within the metronomic arc. He could allow himself immersion during play. He has latitude for Gedankenexperiments during this time. His mind enters a fugue state of churning clock faces and arrow-straight compass needles while time stands still.


April 18

The heart strains. Thoughts unspool. An infinity of positions reveals itself, and he allows himself a chuckle, “Ah, Werner, you rascal.”

A universe spins out of a strange dance of speed and position and bleeds from all things in all times with the cyclic power of quanta against the face of the outer darkness. . .

Time now?




Write against the face of the deep while vision dims and thins to a single point stretching. . . Pointing true. . . Falling happens while standing still. Falling up with a gasp.



“Papa, danken Sie für den Kompass Ihnen. Danke. Danke.”

That invisible yet confirmable dance of magnetic fields fascinates him as he holds the new compass in his palm. No quick turn or spin or tumble would ever disturb the constancy of the poles and that waggling needle, so soon calmed. He feels there are only so many concepts upon which one might depend. But what pulls the compass needle from across the whole world?

For most of that day he loses himself in the compass and the world.

“Albert, Zeit für die Violine Lektion!”

He turns to go in, and the compass needle quivers. It realigns. The motion reminds him of the awaiting metronome. He wishes he could practice the piano today, but the violin will suffice. Perhaps some Mozart.


April 18

Light enfolds him like the sheets. His hands have become too heavy, limbs dense in a fissile life wrapped in plumbum.

It would be like this, he thinks. This. And today has come and gone like all our yesterdays.

It persists.


April 18, 1919

The light dims by degrees, and he finds himself falling backward, grabbing the bedsheets and hoping the equations might slip onto them and provide him certainty in these upended moments.

It could have been 1919.

The corona fluxed and bent and, yes, he proved to himself and to everyone via a parade of integers and coefficients arced from old Newtonian darkness what even such constants as light must obey near the greater bodies of space. 

The nib goes dry, the inkwell nearly empty. 

Time for just one last Gedankenexperiment. 

And . . . 

Danke, Vater. Danke. 

What slips the cogs of gravity save some spray of breath, some quanta loosed from behind glazing pupils in a light-dance across the edge of one final eclipse? 

For against the face of the deep, there is but one end amid all these beginnings. 


–In memoriam A.E.

Berrien C. Henderson lives in the deepest, darkest wilds of southeast Georgia with his wife and two children. He teaches high school English, is a long-time martial artist, and has a big geeky spot in his heart for literature, speculative fiction, and comic books.


As a peace keeper, Billy had never been in actual field combat. He had kicked and punched the enemy, shot his rifle in unreported skirmishes, sidestepped IEDs, gathered pieces of torn flesh, and zippered up body bags. He had never dug down into a trench and repeatedly fired at the enemy, although he had smoked while waiting for bullets to zing at his helmeted head. Isaac watched Billy polish the dress boots, the brisk and swift swipe against the toe with the stiff-bristled brush, an action repeated beyond counting, a concentrated fixation upon an inherently meaningless task. Despite the deeply grooved wrinkling of the leather, no cracks had yet appeared, and the polishing raised a sheen like obsidian. Now and then Billy spat on the leather, then applied the shammy, spit and polish, and Isaac was getting restless. Hell, he hadn’t come to this crappy apartment to watch a soldier polish his boots.

“Are you going to be doing that for long?”

“As long as it takes, buddy.” Billy wore his fatigues as usual, bare-chested, his dog tags swinging with each swipe over the boots.

“I mean I’ve got to leave in a half hour or so.”

“Go now, if you want.”

“I don’t.”

“Then sit still and watch me. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

Billy didn’t look up for an answer nor did Isaac reply. He indeed watched, almost fixated  as Billy’s taut hand stroked pneumatically over the boot, repeating this duty he had been taught years ago. He could drink another beer, smoke another cigarette, lean back in the brown sofa, and watch this soldier repeat this duty he had been taught years ago.

Home from a protracted tour of duty in the Middle East, Billy had registered for Isaac’s university extension course, The Literature of War.  During the first couple of weeks he had remained silent in the class of twenty-odd students, none of whom had any military experience. One evening during a break Billy approached Isaac over coffee in the student lounge where his classmates generally avoided him, lit a cigarette, and blurted out: “You don’t really know what the fuck you’re talking about, do you?”

“I know the literature which you don’t.” Isaac had bristled like a professor assured of his own rectitude and infallibility, unaccustomed to student challenges of this nature. Billy in his mid- thirties, almost twenty years younger than Isaac, wore his experience like his fatigues to class and spoke with a safe assumption of authority. He commanded respect by strong body, abrupt voice, a general manner that warned people away, and a life lived virtually in a different world than his teacher’s soft and vicarious existence. Don’t even think of pushing… his very stance warned, and Isaac, not daring to push, nonetheless became intrigued, unable to explain his attraction to the soldier.

“Put the cigarette out. You know perfectly well smoking is forbidden on university premises. I suggest you put it down.”

“Yes, sir.” Billy had chuckled, grinding the butt under his black boot. “Let’s go out for a drink after class, and I’ll tell you a few things about the army you don’t know.”

And so one drink led to other evenings together after class, and when Billy dropped out of the course, Isaac had phoned. He accepted the soldier’s invitation to come to his apartment where he watched videos taken by Billy and his fellow soldiers deployed in various parts of the world, and he listened to Billy answer his myriad questions about what it was really like being a soldier who had to obey orders and carry arms and risk his life. He found himself constantly watching, as if removing his eyes for a moment from Billy’s body constituted an act of betrayal or desertion. He saw Billy as often as he could now, savouring the proximity to a real military life about which he had only read and studied and lectured. Once Billy confessed that he didn’t really talk much with civilians, but he believed that not only could he trust Isaac, but, shit, he also liked what he saw in the teacher.

“What’s that?”

“You’ll know soon enough, my friend.” Billy stopped polishing, lit his third cigarette of the hour. “You do it.”


“Polish my boots. I’m tired.”

“No way, I’m not polishing your boots.”

Billy put the boot and brush on the floor, dragged long on his cigarette then blew out the smoke in circles at which he was very adept, keeping his eyes on Isaac. He stubbed out the cigarette, breaking it in half, stood up, adjusted his crotch, stretched and clasped his hands behind his head, a position that tightened the pronounced musculature of his body. He had begun lifting weights in the army to kill time, and now worked out religiously. He didn’t need that black belt with a silver lion’s head buckle to hold up his fatigues. Ninety-percent mind-fucking boredom, he had said once, only ten percent action.

“You’ve got two choices, boy. Polish my boots or leave now.”

Isaac examined the boots, black and compelling as if they were a strange kind of animal he had never seen before. He did not move, aware of a qualitative difference in Billy’s tone of voice—joking, friendly, an edge of harshness. Billy remained standing, arms flexed behind his head, and stared down at Isaac who edged forward on the sofa, searching the soldier’s face for signs of playfulness. His cigarette burned in the ashtray. He didn’t really enjoy smoking and only did so because Billy smoked.          

“Polish them,” Billy repeated after a drag. Isaac was going to protest, demand why he should complete a soldier’s unnecessary task as far as he could see. Billy relaxed his arms and sat next to Isaac, pressing against his friend’s thigh and grabbing onto the belt buckle as if to undo it. For a moment, Isaac imagined the whack of leather against his own body. Billy stretched the other arm along the sofa back behind Isaac’s head. “I’m tired of doing it. Polish them. I won’t say it again. Make up your mind.”

If he chose to leave, Isaac wondered if that also excluded the possibility of return. He certainly didn’t wish to leave, nor did he wish to polish the boots; but then, why should he not? Friends did favours for friends. A real friend, which he hoped Billy now regarded him, would consider it a gesture of familiarity. Billy had not requested, though, he had commanded.

By not saying anything, Isaac feared a loss of authority. His silent confusion might be taken for surrender. Anger held his tongue. He wanted to speak, to use obscene terms like Billy, but as he had never been a soldier, they did not spill out of his mouth easily and naturally. He had never developed the lingo of imperiled men, language born from violence and slaughter.

“Pick up a fucking boot now or leave. Do it.” Billy maintained the pressure against Isaac’s thigh. His hand dropped and gripped the teacher’s left shoulder, not digging hard, but firmly enough to remind his friend that in the improbable event of a grapple, he would lose to Billy’s expertise and strength. I should leave, Isaac thought, but he couldn’t immediately move because humiliation and a desire for what the boot represented, a knowledge of the language of violence stayed him. Was it such a terrible thing to obey? Serve a soldier? Somehow, his shame would be greater if he left than if he humbled himself in front of Billy and followed orders. Still, an iota of resistance had to be demonstrated, a manifestation of self-respect, independence, irritation.

“For fuck sake, all right, I’ll do it, why make such a bloody deal about it?” He bent over and reached for a boot and brush.

“Good choice. Now, get to work, boy. Don’t stop until I tell you to. You need to learn how to obey. Got that?  I want to bench press while you do what you’re told. Let me see results.” Then he laughed and tousled Isaac’s hair as the teacher inserted his fist deep into the darkness of the soldier’s well-worn boot to get a secure grip while he brushed.

“Yes, Sir,” Isaac had almost shouted, trying to sound ironic and amused, but it came out both sullen and compliant. Heat flamed in his cheeks.

“Damn right! And don’t get polish on the couch or you’ll have to clean it up. Here, you can wear my dog tags like a real soldier. I know you want to.” Billy quickly removed them from his neck and slipped the chain over Isaac’s head, momentarily resting a hand on his friend’s neck. Isaac’s anger receded, the fire suffused with a new kind of warmth. The tags on their chain reminded him of the weeks he had spent listening to Billy tell stories of his adventures in the Middle East, sometimes fingering his dog tags, explaining their purpose. Isaac rested the boot on his lap, and without looking at Billy began snapping the hard bristled brush over the wrinkled leather. Billy went to his bedroom, which he had crowded with weight-training equipment. 

With dog tags dangling and jiggling on their silvery chain under his shirt, Isaac leaned into the task of polishing the boots. He held a hand inside, against the worn leather, and whisked the brush steadily, repeatedly over the outside. His face simmered with anger, gratitude, love, sentiments that motivated his arm to move faster. He brushed and would not stop without Billy’s express command and slowly, minute by minute, the anger softened into a sort of relief blending into the steady warmth. If he produced a glassy shine, he would accomplish what Billy wanted; he would deserve the tags.

In his imagination, age differences dissolved. He’d be incorporated in Billy’s world of action and boredom. He’d be a dusty soldier bearing arms in deep regulation and comradeship. He would know these men. The dog tags were almost hot on his skin, now, as if they radiated a reservoir of Billy’s body heat. Outside the dirt-covered window pane he saw a gray sky stretching over the city, a sky without energy, without signposts, without the drama of cumulous clouds, flat and unremarkable.

Where had all the years of his unlived life gone? Married, raised children who now lived on the other side of the country. He travelled to requisite art galleries, museums and restaurants, regular friends no more exciting than he. Vanished. He lived only in this fierce moment. For as long as Billy wished it, he existed solely in the here and now, serving the soldier who pumped iron in the other room and wore his boots in faraway parts of the world where Isaac had never been.

The dog tags indicated Billy’s identity and blood type, invisibly inscribed with cold nights in the North African desert, hot days in Turkish bazaars tinkling with brass and beads, women in foreign places who gave or sold themselves. The smell of leather and boot polish intoxicated and he breathed in the aroma like morphine, no longer able to choose the drug but addicted to it. He had become Billy’s boy, yet his sense of masculinity surged. He heard Billy huffing as he pumped iron.

“You doing a good job, boy?”

“Sir, yes, Sir!”

Isaac brushed vigorously, pushing his hand as far as it could go inside the hot, much-worn boot, fulfilling his duty, the dog tags tickling against his warm chest.

Kenneth’s Radu fiction has appeared or is forthcoming online in vis a tergo, Foundling Review, Tattoo Highway20, Danse Macabre, Spilt Milk, The Medulla Review, The Tower, and elsewhere. The author of over a dozen books, his last collection of stories Snow Over Judaea was published by Vehicule Press of Montreal. A new collection of stories is forthcoming this year from DC Press, also of Montreal. He writes or putters about the edges of actual compostion several hours daily and lives in Quebec.