There he was again, that old man with the mid-chest-length beard that looked like a thick grey brier patch. A bristly trap. She was afraid to look at it in case it carried scraps of egg and cheese or something crawled out. She resolved to help pull anything still alive straight out, though–to save it from early death.
“Miss? A coffee?”
“Right, what kind?”
Tree studied the menu board as if to point him to it, like he had no knowledge of their offerings. But he seemed to come in at least every third day, though she’d just worked there 14 days so who knew. He always had a pile of books that he browsed for a good hour or two before leaving. Like he was in a library. Maybe he bought one. But Tree couldn’t imagine wanting to sit with books that long.
Well, it was a bookstore, after all, not just a coffee shop.
Fourteen days, payday, she thought, then looked at him with mild eyes or as best as she could manage.
“The usual, a grande cappuccino, and I do thank you,” he intoned with a bit of a rasp.
He pushed a ten dollar bill towards her. She slid it off the counter, put it in the till with a brief acknowledgement. She got to work as he tipped his wide-brimmed hat and walked away. He never took it off–she suspected he was bald. Too much on the chin, too little on the head, what a weird way to get old. She’d never get so old if she had her way.
She got busy with the preparation, glanced at the clock, four more hours until Ginny came in and she could go.
Maybe she should name the old guy, just for fun, but what?
There was Rusty, hunched over two bright, impossibly glossy pages. She gave her the nickname because of the middle aged woman’s dyed rust-colored hair neatly pulled back each side with tortoise shell combs, and she just looked autumn-like, tawny skin though lined, lips an old fashioned flaming orange. Rusty came in every morning, took a seat along the wall, watched people as she skimmed the magazines. Which had to be gathered up later and made sure they were still clean, usable. Rusty was careful, overall. She didn’t want to get kicked out, Tree suspected. She toted an ancient backpack stuffed full and her jacket and shoes were wearing thin at seams and soles.
Three more lined up and she called out the cappuccino and got back to work. There wasn’t a lot of time to slack off on her shift. Tree had begged for a shorter one, but her Aunt Margery held firm.
“I’m down one now that the university is back in session. I intend on keeping my bookstore and coffee shop humming along. You learned enough at your last barista job. Besides, you have anything pressing to do with your days, Treesa Marie?”
“Nope. Okay I got it. When do I start?” She’d studied her boots, tamping the anger down until it receded to a tiny fox of a growl.
Her aunt wasn’t awful, just bossy. And sneaky, Tree thought–but why did Margery and her parents think this was the place for her? Oh, right, she’d gotten drunk too often, dropped out of high school and lost her first job at a fancy hotel. But a used bookshop? Aunt Margery would’ve taken issue at the adjective as she sold new books, too. But Tree could barely stand the sight of all those books. Dead trees, after all. Sentence after sentence of dulling content, few decent pictures from what she could tell, little inspiration.
“Right now! Ginny, our primo barista, is waiting for you.”
Ginny. Now there was someone who knew what they were doing and why.
“It’s a decent job, you get to know the regulars and meet new interesting ones, and you’re back here where you can eye all those beautiful books. My feet and legs and arms can get tired. Other than that if it paid more, that’d be better, but it’s still a good job. Your aunt and uncle are fair bosses, too. How about you?” She showed her teeth as she spoke, a front tooth willfully crossing over its neighbor, but Tree suspected she easily stunned people into blind submission with relentless positivity and her spunky blond haircut.
“Oh, I dropped out of school and this is my punishment.”
Ginny’s face fell but she offered a bright smile. “Well, listen, I got my GED at 19 and it all worked out.” She paused. “I’m only 23, been here three years, and your aunt is especially awesome.” She reached out to give a reassuring touch on Tree’s arm, but Tree stepped back just in time. “Okay then, welcome. We’ll get on fine. Let me show you the ropes.”
And they did get on fine, Tree admitted, as she made a mocha with almond milk, no whip. Ginny was harmless as people went, had a boyfriend who was studying hospitality, lived with her best friend, a kindergarten teacher. The two of them infrequently overlapped shifts after the first three days of training. Tree had been declared capable of managing on her own four or five hours each morning, five days a week.
The problems with all this were: number 1, she didn’t want to work as a barista (she’d rather sweep cut hair at a beauty salon floor and sterilize combs and brushes, for goodness’ sake) and number 2, she didn’t like books or reading or anything that remotely made her think of her recently ended public education experience.
“A refill, if you please?” It was Uncle Jonathan with their bookstore logo– Page and Bean–mug. “How’s it going?”
She gave him a pleasing glance. He’d sense to not berate her for leaving school. Or he didn’t want to make a fuss. But he only said he’d also struggled with high school–due to battling leukemia. That had unnerved her. Now he was well, more or less–she’d never suspected he’d been though all that. Somehow she felt he was trustworthy. They shared small talk that meant a little more, being relatives.
“Fresh hot brew, coming up.”
He was wheeling about a dolly stacked with new books and he studied the cover of one.
“Ever read sci fi?” he asked as she poured the coffee.
“You know I don’t volunteer my eyes to paper and print.”
“Yeah, just wondering why at times. I thought you might like this new one we got in. Keep up the good work.” He took a sip, raised his mug, went on his way.
Relief flooded her. It was only a little job, barely spending money. But still, he was fair and so was her aunt. Kindly, even. She got to washing some things up, then took four more orders. And there was the old man again, his palms flattened on the counter top.
“Thought I’d have a piece of pumpkin loaf.”
She took his cash, put it on a plate, handed it to him.
“You’re new, I noticed. Staying on?”
“I suppose so.”
“Good to hear. You make excellent cappuccinos.” He nodded his head and the beard nodded, too. He retreated to his spot and she noticed for the first time a beautiful wood cane with brass handle leaned against the chair. Was that new? He didn’t walk so poorly, crooked maybe, mild limp is all.
What did it matter? But she would name him Sir Beard. He read so studiously. And his beard was impressive, like it or not. She checked the clock. Another couple hours she was out of there. She got out her phone and looked into the camera to check face and hair. Could be worse. Her eyes were much less puffy and bloodshot than they used to be. Eyes being her best feature everyone said, tending toward purple end of the blue spectrum. She put down the phone and got to work when a skinny tallish guy ambled up, hands jammed in pockets.
“Not Jimmy Malloy. Why are you here?” she said with a snort.
“I like graphic novels and steampunk,” he said, eyebrows rising then falling. “I like this bookstore. Why are you here?”
“Ugh, steam what?” she said, “I am working.”
“Lucky you!” He laughed, but not quite meanly. “It’s all good, maybe you can get me some stuff on a discount.”
“I doubt it, Jimmy.”
He eyed her from under lowered lashes. She was smart, she was cute, so what was she doing here? Oh, yeah, can’t hold her booze, left school, too bad.
She served him a double shot of espresso and thought, This will get back to school and then I’m done for, they might drop in, I’ll have to be nice. Or get even tougher. But what do I care, anyway?
Rusty sidled past her, set her empty mug on the counter and stared right at her, not a cold stare but not a warm one, more like trying to figure the girl out. Then she raised and lowered shoulders with an exaggerated movement and kept on. She walked with feet turned way out. Jimmy smirked as he watched, then slouched off to another area.
She had to admit: what sort of place was this, all these weird people milling about a sea of books? Tree could drown in those rows, they made her dizzy just passing through. But it was money and it was keeping her parents off her back. It was something to kill time until she knew what to do next. It did not include going back to finish 12th grade. That much she knew. But that didn’t make her feel as giddy as when she quit going. Who was the joke on? But why did she give a care about that, anyway?
Treesa Hallaway’s parents were professors at the university. They lectured on differential geometry, infinitesimal calculus and Renaissance art and literature, respectively. Linguistics was a secondary passion for both. And their son and daughter were thought to be academically gifted from the start, they admitted to others, and should be happy with the pursuit of learning. As they were for a few years.
Then Trevor was outpacing his sister in school by middle school, but he’d always longed to be a veterinarian and sought to prove he could do it. He’d just last year begun the higher education required. Though he and Treesa got along well enough when they weren’t surreptitiously fighting, he did not understand why she hated school. All she ever said was that she found book learning boring and she’d rather be doing anything at all outdoors or maybe helping their dad repair things or hanging out with friends in the park. Later, it became more hanging out in Wexford Woods, the party spot.
“You drink too much,” he warned her each bleary week-end morning.
“You think and talk too much,” she retorted.
“You better watch it, you’ll end up being and doing nothing.”
She had slugged him when he said that–he’d tackled her and screamed at her to “grow up!” Luckily their parents were inside while they were on the big hill behind the house. They separated as they fought, rolled down the long bumpy descent. When they landed against a line of bushes, he sat up and stared aghast as she retched.
“Serves you right. But you need help.”
Tree didn’t respond as she lay back and closed her eyes, hoping the world would stop spinning and he would leave.
“I don’t think Mom and Dad even know how bad this has gotten, Tree. I found a pint of rum under the seat of my Fiat last night. Empty. You can’t just drive like that! In fact, you can’t ever drive my car again.”
“Sorry, I know it is sacred, hate to leave a mess…”
He hung his head, felt his pulse rise, that scared feeling he got when he saw her out with her silly, mad drinking buddies, or thought of her getting in another car loaded or coming to school so out of it. Once she kept trying to get open the wrong locker–she was sure it was hers, she’d said–and finally broke into it open by kicking and beating it, causing a huge scene. She was asked to leave for the day, their parents called and they were humiliated. But they offered excuses along with reprimands.
Trevor was going away soon. Who would know what was more seriously happening–unless he told their parents?
“You have to stop this, Tree, please. The guys talk, you know what I mean.”
She groaned, turned over. “Leave me alone. You’re an idiot who knows nothing about me, you are allied with them. Drinking just…helps.”
“Helps you fail classes, miss events and possibly screw up your health at 16? You look bad, sound and smell terrible, and you’re falling down the rabbit hole!” He wanted to make her see, but she was so hungover he knew she felt his words only rush by her like a bad wind.
“Goody! Maybe I like it! Back off, genius, live your own beautiful life!”
So he did, but not before he brought up her increasing alcohol abuse at breakfast the next morning. Their parents immediately assessed the additional dire facts and presented her with one option: alcohol and drug outpatient treatment. That plus grounded for a month, at least.
And so she gave in and went, barely got through three months of outpatient addictions treatment. And finished that year at school without failing. But she had a rough summer trying to stay sober, trying to be okay. Tree quit school the following fall, her senior year.
What she wanted to know was, what was the big deal with formal education? Did it really change anything in the rotten world? Did it make you a deeply better person? Did it mean she could do whatever she wanted without chronic criticism regarding whatever she did not well enough? Who benefited most from further educational endeavors? Her parents and their smug sense of success?
Trevor, their golden child, was long gone. He’d be set up nicely one day, administering to dogs, horses, his beloved llamas. Good for him. All Tree liked was being outside, even raking the leaves, or skiing on the mountain or climbing forest paths, but her parents thought there was no payoff for that direction unless she became an environmentalist or oceanographer or anything but a backpack or ski bum. How would that make a living? And it was all so purely physical.….
Tree stopped going to school because she’d suffocate if she had to spend one more hour listening to adults drone on about things that mattered to them but little to none in her life. That, and she was considering becoming a hermit if all else failed.
Her parents, wanting to seem more progressive than they were and terrified of losing her completely said, “Then stay sober, get a damned job and demonstrate some sort of measurable responsibility for your actions. And we’ll revisit this arrangement in four months.”
Why four? But that was her father; he’d determined that number was right, it met his requirements for a workable equation. And they would arrive at a solution, he was sure of that.
Tree slipped trough the revolving door and waved an acknowledgement of Aunt Margery and Uncle Jonathan at the front of the store, bypassed a clot of readers around the “new nonfiction” table and slipped past a woman and her service dog and on to the back. She donned her blue apron and took up her station. It had been over a month at the coffee shop and all was moving along. She still did not read the books. She did like an outdoors magazine on her break.
Rusty was waiting and got her regular brew, the cheapest of the lot, and looked hard at her again. This was her routine: getting her coffee, seeing if there was any day old bakery goods (usually was) to eat, giving Tree a stare that might have said something if only Rusty would add a couple words to it, and then she hid along the back wall.
This time, however, Tree had something to say,
“I can get you a bag of scones or something at day’s end for nothing of you come by then.”
Rusty pulled herself up taller–she had curvature of the spine so this wasn’t so easy–and said, “Well. I pay for what I get. But if you’re just going to toss it…”
“Yeah, I know. Check in with me after 8. I’m working a split shift today.”
“Ginny has never did this–you sure?”
“Yep. And do I care if anyone agrees with my new policy?”
Rusty wiped her nose with a large pansy-decorated handkerchief, gathered her worn face into a more pleasant expression and shuffled off. She studied Tree awhile, as if she was seeing a different girl.
It had gotten busier. Her aunt and uncle had had three readings and book signings by area authors recently who were deemed “up and coming”. They’d improved the lighting in a corner lounge area where six chairs and a love seat were positioned around an antique wood stove. It had gotten colder so more customers came in and stayed longer. And they were buying, too.
Tree had to admit she liked the smell of wood burning. At her house her parents rarely took the time to use the fireplace, they were either in the study or cooking up a storm together or gone. Tree had used it more once but now all she had to do was go to work, enjoy the crackling fire close to the little coffee space.
Ginny, it turned out, had started to think about doing other things. In fact, she was taking an esthetician course.
“I care about healthy skin,” she said, “and yours looks good.”
“I don’t do anything to it, just wash and go. I’m outdoors a lot.”
“Hmm.” She put a fingertip to her cheek and tapped. “Maybe it’s the fresh air and healthy lifestyle, plus you’re still so young.”
Tree gave a short laugh. “I doubt anybody would say I’ve had a healthy life.”
“Why is that–you seem good to me!”
“Well, I don’t sleep enough, I haven’t been on a good hike for over two weeks, I skip meals in favor of coffee and for three years I used to….well, what the hell, drink hard.”
Ginny’s eyes widened a bit, then she slapped the counter with her towel. “I knew we had something in common! I used to, too!” She looked about and lowered her voice. “I got help last year, AA meetings.”
Tree was surprised by this and yet not, then she noticed a man waiting at the counter. “Huh, no way! But that’s not for me.”
“Never know,” Ginny replied and took off her apron. “Off to my class–see you!”
The rest of the day Tree off and on considered the uncomfortable idea of AA but each time she rejected it. Who at seventeen went to AA? That was for serious alcoholics, not her short-lived issue–right? Plus she didn’t drink anymore. So far. For awhile.
She kept her head down,nose to the grindstone and everyone was happy for the moment. Not too hard to manage.
It had been a good idea to work at the bookstore cafe. Having the set hours of work and a casual atmosphere and regular customers was nice. Having her aunt and uncle around, she had to admit, was not a bad thing. And her parents were full of words about how conscientious she’d become, how glad they were to see her making changes, they were starting to believe in her again. It irritated her last nerve, and some days she’d want to drink again or worse, just quit the whole scene and wander wherever the wind took her. The Hallaways were such products of and captivated by the rarefied atmosphere of their ivory tower of higher education. Superior in attitude, she might add, even though she knew they were not intent on disparaging her, and even loved her. Didn’t they?
“Well, Miss Hallaway, there you are.”
She lifted her head, then stood up from the low cupboard she was sorting out. Sir Beard.They had gotten to know one another a little. Even if they didn’t talk, it was as if they were friends, in an odd way, the way an interesting, intelligent old guy and a smart-mouthed young woman could be.
He was in a wheelchair.
“Hello…? Way down there somewhere.”
He put on his glasses, peered at the baked goods. He tapped at the glass with his cane, pointed at a pecan sticky bun. She got it out and started his cappuccino.
“Treesa, I think just decaf today if you have fresh brewed.”
She spun around. “Sure, if that’s what you want.”
“It’s better for me. I already will be filling my veins with refined sugar in that roll. And I have to wean myself, better for the heart, you see.” He leaned into the counter, hands on the ledge. “Hip surgery soon.”
“A letdown, huh. The regular coffee and the hip thing.”
“Blast it all– that’s what I have to say about it.”
“I meant the coffee change mostly, sorry. Like a most reluctant deceleration on an uncertain descent… ” She held up her hands as if to say, What can you do but roll with this? Trying to lighten the mood.
Sir Beard frowned at her, then let out a belly laugh. “You do have it in you after all!”
“A firing intellect and humor!”
He wheeled himself over to a small table and waited; he smoothed his beard, then folded his hands. She took him his coffee shortly, hesitated, then jumped in.
“I’ve wondered. Do you write or something creative? Or were you–are you–a teacher? You read a lot every time. Take notes, too.”
He held the steaming mug to his nose and inhaled deeply, then took a sip. “I have written a bit and given lectures, if that’s what you mean. About mountains and forests, that sort of thing, and living off the grid. And I enjoy research about those things.”
“Really?” Tree felt a shiver of excitement. A naturalist or a forest service man or something good like that!
He sipped again. “Been a few years since I was living in wilderness, though. So it goes, we all wear out.”
“I think–oh, more customers, have to go back–that is amazing.”
He tipped his hat, then took it off and smoothed his hair down for the first time that she knew. And she was wrong. He had thick wavy white and steel grey hair on his head. And he didn’t put the hat back on.
As Tree waited on people, she kept glancing back at Sir Beard. She had to get his real name sometime. Who was he?
In a few minutes, an official looking man dressed in a charcoal suit came up to the old man’s table and sat down, his back to Tree, and she couldn’t guess what they were talking about. Was he his agent? Publisher? A medical consultant? That would be weird… Maybe Sir Beard had a business proposition going on, like a new wilderness survival invention.
It was getting to her. This job.
Not eight weeks and she was becoming part of them, the world of everyday people. Workers and some schemers. And booksellers. Not a reader yet, but even that was funny, how her eyes drifted to this or that as she wound her way through the aisles. No one had even asked her to read. No one had bored her to tears with their reviews of favorite books. Her aunt and uncle hadn’t once mentioned that she come to a reading or help them put books on shelves, even. She worked in the coffee shop, that was all they expected and so far it had worked out. Margery had even told her a customer or two had sung her praises: she was fast and efficient, polite. Ginny was a bit slower to get things done as she was quite chatty.
“Ginny is a good person and I hope she keeps her job, she really makes the place.” Tree had defended her though she knew things would change without her input. Ginny wanted to serve people with skin needs, not book needs.
Uncle Jonathan had said as Aunt Margery attended to the next stack, “Well, she coached you well if she does go,” as if they knew what was happening, anyway.
Rusty left the building. The mysterious man in the suit left. Sir Beard finished his coffee and read. Jimmy Malloy came in on lunch break with a couple of his friends, including Riley, the one girl she’d disliked the most in English class. She was a know-it-all and a self-avowed snob.
“Hey,” he said.
“Yeah, and make it on the rocks!” the other guy–Evan the future lawyer with a Tesla, no doubt–offered.
Riley slapped her thigh and giggled as if this was the most clever thing she’d heard. Tree got the espresso, then filled a plastic glass with ice, ppoured the espresso over it, and served it with two straws. She handed it to Jimmy with a big smile.
He looked at it, shook it up.”What the—-you think this is funny?”
“He needs his money back plus a new free drink,” Evan said in all seriousness.
Riley stepped up. “Just a joke, can’t you tell the difference? Take that back and fix it. And I will have a grande mocha, a latte for Evan.”
Tree was about to say something in return when Aunt Margery glided by.
“How’s it going, kids? Nice of you to say hello to your old classmate, I gather. Anything else we can do for you?”
“Yes, you can–“Riley began.
But Jimmy elbowed her so they found a table and turned away from Tree. When she called out their names for the drinks, Jimmy came up.
“Sorry, being stupid, I guess.”
Her lips fell into a little moue, then she shrugged. “Who cares? I’ll make you the right drink.”
“No, it’s fine.” He backed away, then went to the table.
At the end of the afternoon, when she was about ready for a break, Sir Beard beckoned her over.
“It has been two months since you began here. You figured it out or dare I ask?”
“Whatever you’re working out.”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I think you’re heading in the right direction. You are adapting. All creatures adapt as needed to survive. And it works out fine most of the time, certainly better than if they had not.”
“But they can just make a choice to leave the pack, can’t they?”
“You mean like a lone wolf, for example, or one rousted? Harder that way. But sure, that can be an option, another kind of adaptation.”
His eyes met hers and she didn’t shy away. His were tired eyes, soft, damp eyes, though all about them were bunches of deep leathery lines and they lit up when he was attentive to things or people.
“I know…you must be a wilderness expert, or a guide.”
“That’d be about right. And, have to mention it again, author. That is how I make most money these days.”
“You are…hmm, I’m not sure. But I love the outdoors more than anything.”
“Well, I’m a white-bearded loner of an old man, my heyday was years ago and you’re young. I’m Dale Everly Nelson.” He stuck out a beefy, still powerful hand.
She took it and they shook.
“Dale Everly Nelson… I do know that name, somewhere–maybe from my dad’s bookshelves, he’s into math and science. I would love to hear your stories.”
“That would be nice sometime. Or you can read them.” He tapped one of the books he had. “I figured you for one of us nature nuts after a bit. You’re hearty, different-minded, you seem like a fledgling–forgive me for the pun– trail blazer to me. I hope you climb mountains and paddle down strange rivers one day, too.”
“Dale, I see you have met my niece.” Uncle Jonathan stopped a moment. “She’s a good barista, right?”
“Indeed. And so interested in the great panorama of nature.”
“She is that. She might do something interesting like you one day,” he said then continued on his way.
“I want to ask you–did you go to college, sir?”
“Well, I didn’t, then I did. I spent years backpacking around the world and such, learning nature’s ways so closely, then decided to study botany and wildlife management. But it didn’t work out so well. I left after two years in. Bored stiff. I went back out and became my own kind of expert, eventually made a bit of a name for myself. I did alright, Miss Hallaway. But I had the best time of it for more than fifty-odd years.”
She shrank back. “You aren’t done getting out and about, not yet, are you?”
“Could be,” he replied, and patted the wheelchair. “Old injuries caught up with me. Not all that outdoor living was only a thrill, lots of dangers and issues come up for a human. We’ll see after the surgeries the next few weeks. Best to get out there while you have stronger bones and more resilience, you know! My son seems to think I’m nearly done for–he was the man in the suit, by the way. A finance guy.” He rolled his eyes.
“Oh, really?-I mean, who would have thought?”
“You got that right.”
“I have a questin. Do you go by tree becasue you love trees?” He laughed as he said it, but gently.
“No, not atall. My name is spelled with no ‘e’ after capital ‘t’–Treesa– but it was shortened to Tree as a kid. An omen, perhaps, huh?”
“Anybody manning this coffee shop?” A man with two whining kids waited at the counter.
“I better get back, but thanks for all this. I’m glad we had a chance to talk more. And I want to hear more.”
“Yes, indeed, as am I,” he said and leaned back into his wheelchair, hands seeking the next book to study.
Tree mused over all he had said as she finished her shift that evening. And thought about it in bed that night, as well. Why couldn’t she get her GED, then enter college to study forestry or something worthwhile like that?
To spend her life in the woods among friends, nature’s creatures and like-minded people. It was as if a door swung open for her and she could almost see a wide open vista.
After three days off Tree went in to work. Her aunt and uncle seemed caught up in new inventory so she headed back to the coffee shop. Rusty was there. She got her a grande coffee and took it to her table, a cranberry muffin thrown in.
“Aw, not into cranberry.”
“Well, what then?”
“I can buy it.”
“Ok, what would you prefer?”
They went to the glass case to look the goods over.
“That. A chocolatey cross-ant.”
“One croissant coming up, Rusty.”
“Heh? Rusty who?”
Tree clapped hand over her mouth then made her face calm. “I’m so sorry…I didn’t know your name and you have red hair so in my mind I call you ‘Rusty’ but didn’t plan to say it out loud. Sorry.”
Rusty took a large chomp out of the croissant, slid her five dollars across the counter. She stared into Tree’s eyes, her own brown ones blinking twice as she thought that over. Then she walked away.
“Good name,” she said.
After the morning flew by she started to think about Sir Beard, Dale Everly Nelson. Where he was. If his surgery was coming up soon. If he’d stopped all coffee, though she didn’t know why he had to–but he’d be back on it again, surely.
Then her shift was ending and Ginny came soon shortly to take her place. The esthetician class was going well and she was excited to move forward with her goals. She might even quit in six months, she’d confided.
When she arrived at the coffee shop she noticed Tree was sitting on a bench, staring at the floor. Everything looked fine but Tree did not, really. She sure hoped she hadn’t gotten drunk.
“What’s up? Ginny asked.
“Oh.” She shook her head. “Just thinking, that can be dangerous, you know.”
“Ha ha. Is anything wrong, though?”
“Just wondering how Mr Nelson is.”
“Oh, Sir Beard.”
Ginny was puzzled but started to work.
“The old guy with the long beard and hat, you know? Dale Everly Nelson.”
“Oh,” she said. She hadn’t known his real name, either.
And then Uncle Jonathan was walking through the aisles towards her, eyes on the floor, and Aunt Margery was scurrying behind him, a hand on his back.
Tree stood up slowly. Waited, arms lank at her sides, hands tightening into fists.
“He…he had the surgery, then, right…?
Uncle Jonathan’s face was nearly slack, forlorn.
“He is doing badly? Or…he died? He didn’t, not Sir Beard, he couldn’t!”
Aunt Margery took her by the hand and walked her back to the office. Sat her down in a comfortable chair. Her uncle sat next to her.
“He was a friend of ours for decades, Treesa. He was such an adventurer, you have no idea, and what a writer, what a storyteller! His books sell so well even thirty or more years later, and his last one, in 2018, rose to the top of the indie list in nonfiction. But mostly he was just a big ole guy with a big heart and a fascinating mind and he–“
But Tree didn’t hear her, nor her uncle. She heard Dale talking. About how you could do what you were passionate about. How he had loved it all, it was his life. How he thought she might be like him somehow.
She didn’t move, didn’t blink, not even when they said her name sweetly. The old man had told them she would not be prepared if he didn’t return, that they had to tell her carefully.
“You have to watch out for young ones,” he had said, “their tender hearts beat hard despite their other finely developed survival skills. Everyone feels pain, even those creatures out there. For us, it is the young, and the passionate, and the very old ones.”
Two soft tears wet trails down her cheeks, her unusual violet-blue eyes covered with sheen, her face full of stillness. The tears were moving as if doing their best to be dignified, unafraid, with no regret. She refused to break down here, among books, in the coffee shop.
But she did have regrets, she knew that, and later she recounted it all. For not knowing Sir Beard longer or better. For not being friendlier to Rusty from the very start. For not saying good bye to Trevor when he left for university, not talking to him much now. For making her parent’s lives harder than they should be. And not finishing school–of what was she thinking? She hated school. Of trying to drink away her anger and hurt. But she knew what she had to do now. Well, in a few months. After she had saved more money. Travel, her GED, then perhaps…college.
The next day when Tree came in, she found two books in her locker where they kept their personal things and took breaks. Her aunt had said she had something for her.
He had left her the books. One was about exploring the deep Alaskan wilderness in the 1970s and ’80s, and living off grid. The other was a collection of nature essays published in 2018: “My Views from this Mountain” by Dale Everly Nelson.
Inside the second one was handwritten inscription in spidery script:
Some of us are destined for a life beyond the norm. A life that more diligently encompasses the majesty, ruggedness and serenity that Nature offers those who adore and respect her complexities. It was my destiny. It may be yours. But whatever path you choose to follow, do not give up heart. Believe the impossible, take risks that will lead you to joy, awe and wisdom.
Is that asking too much? You can answer this. But I think it is not.
Look up; I will be waving you onward.
May your soul prosper–
Dale Everly Nelson aka Sir Beard.