As the sun set, there was the Cherry Tree, and nothing else. Six feet tall it stood, which, when I look at it now, is not very high at all. But back then, for all those years, when we were young and chasing my beagle Pronto through the neighborhood, up to our high school graduation, this cherry tree bowed to nothing but the sky.
My father’s house, a cottage with windows of air not glass, a front and a back door and a separate shed that was gutted to barely hold our station wagon, was at the corner of Horchester and Dorton streets, on a patch of raised grass that stood out a blazing green against the humdrum dirt roads. We had four neighbors down Dorton street, and Horchester was empty for miles. At the end of Dorton stood our Cherry Tree, surrounded by its’ orchard, a set of three dozen smaller trees, each no bigger than three feet tall — just low enough so Flora and I could reach over the top branches and hold each others’ hands as the sun set.
Flora and I would often lie together under the six footer we dubbed Cheery. Growing up as neighbors, we’d often bickered as children do, but adolescence, hormones, and loneliness led to better times. High school was nearing its’ end and neither of us had a plan after that. The nearest college campus was named Ithaca, but even that was over a hundred miles away, and neither of us had grades to make a dent on any application.
Flora reached across my face on this particular afternoon, shading my eyes from the sun as she plucked a cherry from our tree. She sucked on the tart fruit before speaking. I knew she was remembering, just by the look on her face. “You ever think about Pronto?”
“Of course.” Never. Not once had I thought of Pronto until she spoke his name. “He was a good dog.”
“Yeah. Do you remember his bark?”
“More like a cat’s meow.”
“Wasn’t such a great guard dog, though, was he?”
Her words irked me, given Pronto’s demise, but I nodded nevertheless. Flora had a way of saying just the right thing to end any conversation, most often on an uncomfortable note of nostalgia, as though she were fighting to remain five years in the past.
Flora raised her hand and flicked her forefinger from her thumb, knocking a cherry off the tree and into my mouth. I coughed it out of my throat and chewed the fruit — pit and all — savoring the juices. Not quite ripe, not yet, but very soon. This was our little game, every day in the summer, under Cheery. I smiled at her, knowing she would immediately look away. Dating for three years, and she still couldn’t hold eye contact. I laughed to myself.
“What? What are you laughing at, Polo?” Her pet name for me. Ever since I took a road trip across country with my father, she called me Marco Polo. Thought I was really something. Thought I had seen the world.
“Nothing, just thinking.”
“Thinking makes you laugh, laughing makes me jealous. I want to laugh, too, so spill.” She reached up quickly, and flicked another cherry. I had to lean to my left to catch it, but we make a great team that way. I coughed it up, and chewed it, feeling some of the juice spray out onto my chin. I wiped it away.
“I’m just thinking. It’s kind of ironic.”
“That you mention Pronto now, after all this time.”
“I just thought of him, is all. I mean, there’s Cheery. And there’s you. And a few days ago, Polo, when…when it happened. Feels like history repeating.” She looked away, then, at the setting sun, and I realized my mistake. Only two days, and I still didn’t know how to act around her. I didn’t even know if she needed me near, or just wanted me to back away.
Her father was barely in the ground, suffered a pointless demise at the hands of strangers who didn’t give a damn, and I didn’t reach out to his only daughter, my best friend. She wiped a tear off her cheek, and flicked a cherry without looking. It bounced off my cheek, into the grass, lost now to the earth from which it came.
“I’m scared, you know? Pronto seemed to understand that, but I don’t have a dog to sympathize with me. I have you, and it should be better than this.”
I could sense, then, though I didn’t even know it, that something was about to happen. Our relationship was unique, had been for years, and we were the envy of our tiny little village. Even when I had traveled with my father, the summer when he died somewhere outside of the Grand Canyon, the people we met along our journey could tell I had something special “back home,” something they wanted on their own.
Flora and I had spoken to each other each day, wrote letters, just like classic characters out of Dickens. And our lives had turned into caricatures of ol’ Chuck himself: poor, nearly destitute after my father died, Flora’s parents took me into their home, along with Pronto, and carried my grieving mood for months. When Pronto was shot, he had at least kept the thieves out of Flora’s room, and that was all we could’ve hoped for.
Her mother died soon after the attempted robbery,and her father drank himself into a coma. When he had awakened just a month later, his spirits were cheerful, and he’d promised Flora a change in attitude and a newfound faith in unexpected horizons. With that note, he’d journeyed south to Pennsylvania.
We didn’t heard from him until the police arrived. By then, Flora and I had fallen into the lovesick routine of teenagers acting older than they ought to, playing house with the unspoken realization that our situation was on the verge of collapse when the outside world would enter again.
After the funeral, Flora made me promise never to leave her, but on that day under our Cherry Tree, I discovered that the only thing she wanted was for me to go. You could spend your whole life with someone before realizing that the only way to live is on your own. Flora learned that before I did.
I flicked a cherry into her mouth, and when she bit down the juices spilled over her bottom lip. I wiped the drop with my thumb, licking it clean. She smiled at me, the smile of a girl who’s become less than a friend, become just a friendly stranger, sitting with me under the Cherry Tree.
I couldn’t help but write this memory today. Two memories, really, but when I look back they feel connected, if only by that one tree, in that one orchard. I buried her this morning, my father just two trees to the left, her parents, two to the right. And now the sun is setting on our Cherry Tree, and there is nothing else….